Richmond, Va. — Gov. Rick Perry has left the building, but the 54 media outlets covering his afternoon speech to Virginia Republicans are typing away in the empty convention hall. Here are some thoughts from the press pen.
— This was an unusual event for the Texas governor, who in recent weeks has stuck to national debates and town-hall meetings in early primary states. At a downtown convention hall in a key swing state, he was swarmed by over a thousand GOP activists — greeted like a star, the potential next president. He clearly relished the reception, and as I saw him do in Waterloo, dove into the crowd, touching as many wide-eyed attendees as he could. He was, as ever, at ease, but to see him bounce around such a large room, revving up conservatives, was impressive. This is a politician who enjoys the larger venues, a happy veteran of major-league retail politics. This magnetism should not be overplayed, of course, but it has power.
— Perry is responding to the Romney attacks by ratcheting up his conservative case and talking up his electability. “We don’t need to elect a nominee who’s going to blur the lines between this administration and the Republican party,” he said today. “We need a nominee who draws a distinct and clear contrast. And I will tell you one thing: President Obama and I have a clear contrast.” That drew a roar, slamming Romney without citing him and emphasizing his “contrast” factor for a general election.
— Michele Bachmann, even though she’s lagging in the polls, is causing Perry more headaches than Romney, at least in terms of what the press is hammering. Romney may be blasting him on Social Security and his “four aces,” but in a scrum with reporters this afternoon, Perry was repeatedly asked about his Gardasil mandate — and not much else. He stayed cool as he was peppered, answering each question slowly, but it was obvious to those present that this is one topic he wishes would disappear. But as it continues to bubble up, his strategy appears to be simple: reiterate, over and over, that he regrets how he handled HPV vaccinations. “We should have had an opt-in instead of an opt-out,” he said. “I was wrong. I have readily admitted that we should have done it in a different way.”
— Bachmann may be kicking dirt on Perry’s record, and she’s gaining some momentum by doing so, but Perry will punch back. Speaking with reporters, he went right after her claim that a woman who received the vaccination may have suffered mental retardation. “I think that was a statement that had no truth in it, no basis in fact,” he said. For a second, I thought I was listening to Tim Pawlenty. They both may be tea-party favorites, but Perry and Bachmann are far from friendly — and it shows.
— Speaking of Bachmann, Perry, I’m guessing, has learned a thing or two from her stump speech these past few weeks. He railed against Obamacare, as he always does, but he did it Bachmann-style, raising his voice and pledging to dismantle it. He actually coined a new line about it — “wipe out” — that drew applause and landed in the lead paragraphs of most stories about the speech. Perry also uttered that famous Bachmann line — make Obama a “one-term president.” This should spook the Minnesota Republican, and here’s why: Perry said it with as much gusto as she does on the trail, earning the same exact rousing yelp from tea-party types. If he can make her signature rhetoric his own, and improve on it, she may need to find new material.
— Perry not only swept up many of Newt Gingrich’s former senior advisers, but he’s also mimicking the former House speaker’s messaging. Gingrich, months ago, was the first to frame the 2012 contest as one of choice between a “food-stamps president” and growth. Perry used similar phrasing in Richmond today, building a hard, Gingrich-like case against Obama on the economy. He didn’t go so far, as Gingrich often does, as to call the recession “the Obama depression,” but the point was similar. Again, he is not softening his tone even as he rebuffs Romney on the electability question, which is notable.
— Perry heads to New York City next, where he’ll meet with Donald Trump and big-dollar fundraisers. Reporters, as you can expect, were curious about what Perry was up to. Perry handled the questions about The Donald with a smile, saying he would “just be talking about how to create jobs in America,” nothing more. Sarah Palin famously huddled with Trump months ago and created a media frenzy at a Big Apple pizza parlor. Perry is doing the same, it seems, but without the frenzy. Meeting with Trump may not win applause from GOP grandees, but to weary Palin supporters, perhaps, it’s a signal that politically, he’s in their ballpark and willing to meet with their favorite political figures, even if some find them crass. “Donald Trump’s pretty good about creating jobs,” he said, once again on message. “I got to think Donald has some advice for me.”