Now that Texas governor Rick Perry is in the race, the next two months are going to be both painful and decisive for frontrunner Mitt Romney. Perry is his only real competition, which leaves Romney with one crucial decision to make: to attack or not to attack?
Here’s how the field is likely to winnow down: Michele Bachmann, never a real contender, will begin to fade as the early hype surrounding her bid dies. Herman Cain will suffer a similar fate, though his charisma and natural poise certainly merit a talk show. Despite Ron Paul’s popularity, he’ll remain the Ralph Nader of the Right, simultaneously influential and ignorable, with even voters sympathetic to his views abandoning him once ballots start to get counted. If Jon Huntsman posts strong numbers this quarter in fundraising, he could become a factor. (Huntsman, apparently, continues to repulse conservatives, admitting he believes in evolution and global warming.) However, if Huntsman’s fundraising flatlines, he’ll probably follow T-Paw out the door.
Short of New Jersey governor Chris Christie jumping in, that leaves us with the likely battle royal of Mitt vs. Rick, a tale of the tape between two perfectly coiffed contenders. Much like Perry’s last gubernatorial election in Texas, versus Kay Bailey Hutchison, it’s a match-up of the Republican establishment against a talented outsider. Romney is definitely the establishment candidate, while Perry makes the GOP elite nervous (mainly out of concern that he will continue to play to the Christian Right if he wins, which always frightens the people who run the party).
Perry hasn’t yet tagged Mitt with a nickname of the sort he used in the Texas race — “Kay Bailout Hutchison” and the “Queen of Earmarks” (incredibly turning the billions Hutchison brought to Texas for 17 years into a liability) — though it’s still early. He has thrown a few jabs at Romney, trashing Romneycare and saying that the governor didn’t create any jobs in Massachusetts. This is where the pain is going to come — Romney is going to have to take the shots from Perry with a smile.
For now, he is doing that. He hasn’t responded in kind, and he’s sticking to the long game, focusing on Obama and the general election. This comes with significant risk, however. Perry knows how to campaign. He’s a career politician who has never lost an election. And while Romney worries about running against Obama, Perry is just worrying about running against Romney, which gives him the edge.
Romney’s people hope that by staying above the fray, they’ll allow Perry to implode. If that doesn’t work out, Romney might need to get more aggressive. And that will give him another set of problems — how to go on the attack without appearing to go on the attack.
Perry’s aggressive Evangelism (most recently evidenced in the form of a political prayer rally) is a huge turnoff to many of the independent voters he’ll need to secure the nomination. However, Romney won’t be able to go anywhere near that issue, as he already has enough problems with the Christian base because of his own religion.
The best avenue might be for Romney to go after Texas’s vaunted “economic miracle,” pitting Mitt’s business experience against Perry’s 27-year career taking paychecks from the government. Even that will have to be done deftly — the word “Texas” doesn’t have anywhere near the cringe factor as the word “Massachusetts.” But Perry will have a tough time making the case that he was the fiscal enforcer in Texas. The Texas constitution requires a balanced budget, so it was the legislature that kept the books out of the red, not Perry, whose interest in budgeting has been described by the Dallas Morning News as “political theater.” Specifically, the editorial noted Perry’s submission of a 15-page budget to the legislature with “line after line of zeroes.” Perry called his budget “historic” — and perhaps it was, for its fecklessness. As we’ve learned from Obama’s disastrous tenure, a skilled campaigner is no substitute for an effective executive.
But perhaps the best way for Romney to handle Perry, in the end, is to fight the Texan with a calculated kindness. To push opposition research in private, while publicly proclaiming what a great guy Perry is, what a great state Texas is, and what great energy Perry will bring to the race. To quietly undermine Perry with the backhanded complimentary language one bestows on a successful but somewhat rambunctious younger brother. If this doesn’t work, then Romney might very well be forced to come out and say what he really thinks: Hey, be nice, and I’ll make you my vice president.
— Elise Jordan is a New York–based writer and commentator. She served as a director for communications in the National Security Council in 2008–09 and was a speechwriter for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.