Rick Perry disappeared during long stretches of Tuesday's debate. At a time when pundits said he "needed to hit a home run," he seemed reluctant to take even a swing. His passivity was inexplicable. The few remarks that he ventured to make were wobbly and bland. He mentioned a soon-to-be-unveiled energy plan without previewing a single specific item from it. He took a mild shot at Mitt Romney for his precursor plan to Obamacare, but then failed to follow the attack up, allowing the big news of the day -- records showing that advisers from Romney's gubernatorial days had helped in the construction of Obamacare -- to go unused.
Meanwhile, Romney looked as unflappable as ever. He projected a bemused and superior air while watching the feckless and forgettable bickering over Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan. Romney enjoys the considerable advantage of looking presidential and possesses the ability to start and stop a sentence safely. Unfortunately for Perry, like Bush before him, every sentence is an adventure.
What Perry had going for him were seemingly impeccable Tea Party credentials. But he tarnished those by sticking his finger in the eyes of Tea Partiers on immigration. His "heartless" comment just made him look like another inarticulate "compassionate conservative" from Texas. The HPV business didn't help either, making him look like an obtuse defender of the nanny state.
To have any chance at winning, Perry will need to repair his Tea Party credentials while also playing up his socially and religiously conservative ones. Launching an aggressive daily attack on Romney as the moderate from Massachusetts is Perry's only shot at this point, and he can't just restrict himself to panning Romneycare (though sharpening his attack on it is badly needed).
In Romney's past and present stances there is plenty of liberalism to highlight. In a previous debate, Perry garbled an attempt to remind primary voters of Romney's past support for abortion rights. Far more effective would have been a Perry attack ad showing footage of Romney making multiple pro-abortion declarations, such as, "I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country."
Planned Parenthood, which is not very popular these days with primary voters eager to defund it, once counted the Romneys as a minor donor. Perry hasn't mentioned that forgotten story. Nor has he mentioned that Romney tried to compete with Ted Kennedy as a champion of gay rights when he challenged Kennedy for his Senate seat, telling the Log Cabin Republicans that "as we seek to establish full equality for America's gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent."
Perry could tap into anxieties about the party's ability to challenge Obama's de facto support for gay marriage by noting Romney's past support for homosexual scoutmasters, gay adoption, domestic partnerships, and civil unions for homosexuals. Perry could tap into the party's anxieties about environmentalism and gun control by emphasizing Romney's past support for global warming alarmism and weapon bans.
Maybe none of this would work, but it is all Perry's got. He has no choice but to try and draw Romney into a divisive ideological contest while posing the question to primary voters: Do you want a replay of 2008? Do you want to entrust your party to another politically correct establishment Republican?
Romney is far smoother than McCain and has much more finesse in rebuilding ties to the right, but he is cut from the same establishment cloth. To go from Tea Party success in 2010 to establishment Republicanism in 2012 would be a demoralizing step back. Perry's early success was an indication that many primary voters wanted to avoid this fate, but if Perry can't rejuvenate his campaign Romney will win, as McCain did before him, by default.
Some of Perry's supporters are bluntly targeting Romney's Mormonism. But it is his secularism which poses a bigger target. Romney wears his Mormonism very lightly and in his corporate respectability seems the opposite of a member of a "cult." It was his membership in the East Coast establishment elite that gave Perry an opening. But so far he seems unable to take it.
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