If his past behavior is any indication, when Gov. Rick Perry debates his Republican rivals on September 7, he’ll treat them pretty ugly.
Although the Texan refused to debate his Democratic opponent in last year’s election, his earlier performances show he loves a good fight.
Not that he comes out swinging. Rather, he loosens up over time. And when he’s at his most relaxed, he goes in for the kill.
In 2002, for instance, Perry faced businessman Tony Sanchez in the general election. At the start of their debate, the governor played it safe: He mostly ignored Sanchez’s swipes and listed his accomplishments with a pleasant, steady smile.
When a panelist queried Sanchez about a bank of his that was under investigation, Sanchez asserted, “There were two federal judges and three federal agencies who said management and directors weren’t involved [in the wrongdoing]. . . . So I feel very good.”
“Mr. Sanchez, you shouldn’t feel good,” a solemn Perry replied, shaking his head. “You shouldn’t feel good when the federal authorities tell you that there is drug money that came into your bank in cash in suitcases. And then you sent the money to Panama at the request of those drug dealers. . . . You failed the test of leadership.”
Later, Perry lightened up. After Sanchez criticized Perry’s environmental policies, the governor noted, “What Mr. Sanchez didn’t tell you is that he recently told a Corpus Christi newspaper that he would copy Europe and allow Texans only two ice cubes per drink.” As chuckles rippled through the audience, Perry held up two fingers — and half-heartedly suppressed a grin — to illustrate his point. “That’s his conservation plan.” He then shot a glance at his opponent and quipped, “Mr. Sanchez, you’ve been spending too much time in Europe.”
Perry’s teasing easily slides into ridicule when his opponent is aggressive. In 2010, he insinuated that his primary opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
Early in their first debate, Hutchison hammered Perry for raising taxes. “The Dallas Morning News alone said you had raised taxes,” she offered, before Perry interrupted: “I hope you’re not using the Dallas Morning News as your opportunity for veracity.” The crowd relished the jibe.
Further into the program, Perry questioned Hutchison about her support for the Troubled Asset Relief Program. As she explained the intricacies of her decision process — just as he had planned — Perry played to the crowd, staring off into the distance with raised eyebrows as if to ask, “Is she done yet?”
Hutchison concluded by accusing Perry of hypocrisy: “You wrote a letter to Congress saying pass this bill. . . . And the governors association supported it.”
Perry answered, “Joe Manchin, who’s the West Virginia governor, and I did write a letter to you. We thought you all were smart enough to understand what we were talking about is ‘Stop the spending and cut the taxes.’”
“Uh, governor, that’s not what the letter said,” Hutchison replied.
“I wish we had made it a little clearer for you then, senator,” Perry retorted. The crowd giggled.
“In the first debate, the governor had a really, really cavalier attitude,” says Debra Medina, the third candidate to participate in that debate. “It’s kind of this ‘I’ve got this’ or ‘you can’t touch this’ sort of attitude.”
By the second debate, Medina observes, Perry sobered up. He was similarly grave during his reelection campaign in 2006, his former opponents tell National Review Online. The key difference that year was there were four candidates onstage: the Republican, the Democrat, and two popular independents. Because of his political vulnerability — Perry eventually won reelection with only 39 percent of the vote — his strong performance showed that “he can certainly get by if he has to” says Chris Bell, the Democratic nominee.
“He really never wants to be there,” Bell adds. “I don’t think he enjoys the event.”
But Kinky Friedman, another former Perry foe who’s recently warmed up to the governor, argues his colloquial speaking style will serve him well at the debate and at Sen. Jim DeMint’s presidential forum on September 5. “He’s genuinely a good sport, and he’s had to handle a lot of slings and arrows in the past, many of which were hurled by me, which he’s done very gracefully.”
Ultimately, Friedman contends, “Unless he resorts to speaking in tongues, I predict Perry wins the debate.”
— Brian Bolduc is a reporter for National Review Online.