Okay, so I wrote my LA Times column before the Monday night debate. In it I wrote that Perry was in the sweet spot. After discussing Romney’s manifest problems, specifically his “authentic inauthenticity problem” I wrote:
Perry, the Texas governor, has a very different challenge. He doesn’t have to worry about seeming lifelike enough. He needs to figure out just how much larger than life he can appear without becoming a caricature.
As it is, there are days where Perry seems like he could count on two hands the number of times he’s had to shoot a man for cheating at cards.
So far, though, it’s not a big problem. The latest CNN poll shows that 42% of Republicans think Perry has the best chance of beating President Obama, compared to a mere 26% for Romney. That’s a great place to be, given that the top concern of three-quarters of GOP voters is electability.
And it poses a real dilemma for Romney. His strategy until last month was to make it to South Carolina or Florida as the “anybody but Bachmann” candidate, i.e., the one potential nominee who can beat Obama. But much to the dismay of both Michele Bachmann and Romney, Perry has stolen her “tea party” thunder while still seeming more mainstream.
But after watching the debate Monday night, I came to believe that Perry has a bigger problem on his hands than I originally thought. He doesn’t seem to have a strategy for being president. In today’s column I write:
Perry had some good moments and some very bad ones, which is hardly unusual for any front-runner. What came through during the debate, however, is that Perry doesn’t have a front-runner strategy. Indeed, it’s not clear that he’s got any strategy at all other than to be Rick Perry, the guy who walks on stage looking like he’s ready to chest-bump anything that walks, swims, or crawls.
Meanwhile, Romney has the luxury of time and patience (and a very problematic record that has the benefit of seeming like “old news”). He also has the services of a GOP field determined to pull down Perry like CHUDs reaching up from the sewers:
For much of the last year, Romney’s plan was to use Bachmann to destroy Tim Pawlenty and then run as the “anybody but Bachmann” candidate. That was always risky, since it’s far from obvious that Romney could have beaten Bachmann in South Carolina. But, as fate would have it, the plan actually worked too well, and Pawlenty was pushed out of the race entirely.
Now it turns out that Romney can use Bachmann (and Santorum and Ron Paul) against Perry, too. And, even better for Romney, Bachmann will likely destroy what little plausible electability she had by attacking Perry from the right.
Meanwhile, Romney is hanging back, looking ever more presidential as the pack tears at Perry like jackals softening up the kill for the patient lion waiting just beyond the tree line. Or, to violently switch metaphors, Romney is drafting behind Perry until it gets close enough to the finish to slingshot past him.
It’s a strategy particularly well suited for Romney because he’s not an exciting GOP front-runner. Fair or not, he’s a lot like Sen. John Kerry in 2004, who was going nowhere until Howard Dean self-destructed.
Apparently, this Perry is Dean, Romney is Kerry analogy occurred to Ross Douthat as well.
I discussed it briefly with Hugh Hewitt yesterday and he’s got a longer piece responding to the whole argument here.