He hasn't gotten to wear the "front-runner" crown for very long, but Gov. Rick Perry is already discovering that it comes with a price tag: His rivals are starting to unload on him.
The de-throned Mitt Romney, knocked out of his once sizable national lead according to a batch of recent polls, has essentially been ignoring Perry. But Tuesday morning in San Antonio, in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Romney took a thinly veiled swipe at the Texas governor.
"I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy,” Romney said. “Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don’t know how to get us out.” He didn't mention the governor by name, but on Perry's home turf, no one had to ask, "who could it be?"
It was the clearest sign yet that Romney will attempt to make an issue of Perry's nearly three decades in elected office.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the punch must have been directed at some other politician. He noted that Perry had been a farmer and Air Force pilot before entering elective politics in 1984.
Meanwhile, a much sharper attack came from Pennsylvania on Tuesday morning. In lengthy remarks to reporters, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania unleashed a torrent of criticism on Perry — on everything from immigration to his support in 2008 of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to news accounts.
"We’ll see how conservative Rick Perry really is. He hasn’t been in a debate yet," Santorum said, according to a report on the Politics PA website. "There are a lot of things about his record that will give conservatives pause.” Santorum even compared Perry to President Obama. He said that the governor's 2007 order mandating that teenage girls get vaccinated against HPV, the most common sexually transmitted disease, represented the kind of government overreach that Perry frequently lampoons.
The Legislature quickly overturned Perry's executive order and the governor has since said he made a mistake by trying to make the vaccine mandatory.
“To require it, and have parents have to be aware of it and have to opt out, that is the heavy hand of government,” Santorum said, according to Politics PA. “That is something I’d expect from Barack Obama, not someone who says they’re a conservative.” Santorum, mired in the single digits in opinion polls, has lashed out at Perry before, but this seems to be his most sustained attack to date.
Miner, the Perry spokesman, called the criticism "baseless political rhetoric that doesn't create one new job in this country."
"People throughout this country are concerned about how to get this economy back on track," Miner said. "Gov. Perry is going to continue to talk about issues that matter to people and the miserable track record the Obama Administration has."
Jim Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas, said the attacks come with the territory. Rise to the top and rivals will try to claw you back down.
"It's going to get a lot worse than that before it gets better," Henson said. "It's better to be the front-runner than not being the front-runner. But this is part of the tradeoff: The guy's got a big target on his back." Perry will get a chance to face off with some of his rivals at a GOP presidential forum in South Carolina on Labor Day.
He is also set to make his first appearance in a nationally televised debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California next Wednesday.