August 15, 2011

President Obama is reportedly gearing up to “kill” Mitt Romney in the general election. He may not get the chance. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who entered the presidential race Saturday, gets to take the first shot at the GOP front-runner – and if history is any indication, Romney won’t know what hit him.

To get a sense of the barrage that is about to befall Romney, one need only look at the way Perry eviscerated his fellow Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, in the 2010 Texas gubernatorial primary. Hutchison started the campaign with a comfortable 25-point lead and seemed to have a lock on the GOP nomination — until Perry’s campaign went to work painting Hutchison as a big-spending Washington insider. Perry dubbed her “Kay Bailout,” with ads excoriating Hutchison for her vote for TARP. He highlighted her record of support for pork-barrel spending — tagging her in one ad as the “Earmark Queen” (to the tune of Abba’s “Dancing Queen”). When the dust finally settled, Perry had turned the polls upside down — trouncing Hutchison by a devastating 51 percent to 30 percent.

A Texas Democratic strategist described the governor’s approach to campaigning this way: “When he does an attack ad, he’s like the godfather. It’s never personal, it’s always business.” And Perry’s next order of business is to take out Mitt Romney.

Romney has based his entire campaign on his job-creation record. Perry will be eager to point out that while Texas created 40 percent of America’s net new jobs in the last two years – the best record in the nation – Massachusetts ranked a dismal 47th in the country in jobs growth at the end of Romney’s tenure. A recent Wall Street Journal report points out that Massachusetts jobs growth under Romney was “a pitiful 0.9 percent” compared with the national average more than 5 percent – and that the only states with worse records were Ohio, Michigan and Louisiana, “two rustbelt states and another that lost its biggest city to a hurricane.” As one Perry supporter explained, “You’ll have two people standing next to each other, one that has a proven job creation record and one who doesn’t.”

But Perry will not stop there. After defeating Hutchison in the 2010 primary, Perry went on to crush Democrat Bill White with devastating ads painting him as “another Obama waiting to happen.” Perry will do the same with Romney, using Romney’s Massachusetts health-care law as Exhibit A. Perry has said that Obamacare and Romneycare “are so similar that it is going to be a major anchor unless he stands up and repudiates that approach.” He will not hesitate to tie that anchor around Romney’s neck to sink his presidential aspirations.

Even if Romney did repudiate his own health-care record, this would only feed into Perry’s next line of attack, which would be to contrast his consistent conservative record with Romney’s record of flip-flops. As one Texas Republican strategist explained to me, “Perry was a principled conservative even when he was a Democrat” while “Romney [once] tried to run to the left of Ted Kennedy.” Expect to see the full gamut of Romney’s ideological contortions aired for the GOP electorate before the primary campaign is over.

As his campaign takes Romney apart, Perry will highlight his own record of achievement in Texas. He will cite his success in making Texas the No. 1 state in America for creating jobs — by passing sweeping lawsuit reform, enacting a decade of balanced budgets, cutting spending and taxes, and reducing burdensome regulations. This will resonate with GOP primary voters, and especially with Tea Party Republicans, who will remember that Perry was one of the first major political figures to embrace their movement, long before it became fashionable in GOP circles to do so.

Unlike the 25-point gap he faced against Hutchison, Perry starts his campaign within striking distance of Romney. As one Perry supporter told me this weekend, the Romney folks “definitely are feeling the hair on the back of their necks stick up” now that Perry has entered the race — and with good reason.

Mitt Romney, meet “Kay Bailout.”

More from PostOpinions:

Rubin: Can Perry break through in N.H.?

Stromberg: Perry’s strengths — and weaknesses

Dionne: The new old Obama