August 29, 2011

Rick Perry may have jumped to the front of the GOP pack in national polls, but here in first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Mitt Romney still holds an 18-point lead. When I asked Romney about Perry during a recent campaign swing through the Granite State, he replied, “I don’t know what all of his positions are, you’ll have to ask him . . . I don’t spend a lot of time looking at [other candidates’] positions.”

That may be, but Romney’s campaign strategists are certainly spending a lot of time poring over Perry’s positions — and developing a plan to stop the surging Texas governor.

Romney has been criticized for refusing to engage Perry, but his campaign advisers see no need to do so now. They point out that the Democratic National Committee is going after Perry, hundreds of reporters hoping to make names for themselves are scouring his life and record, and other candidates that Perry has passed in the polls are determined to take him down. Why should Romney attack Perry directly when the Democrats, the liberal media and Michele Bachmann will do it for him? Romney’s strategists note that Perry will have to survive five debates in six weeks — ample opportunity for Bachmann to “rip his eyes out” (as she did to Tim Pawlenty) or for Perry to blow himself up.

If Perry fails to implode and continues to surge in the polls, Romney eventually will have to go on the attack — an assault his advisers say will commence “at a time of our choosing.” Romney strategists are quick to note that in his book, “Fed Up!,” Perry writes that “By any measure, Social Security is a failure” and calls the program “something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now” that was created “at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.”

Look at what happened to Paul Ryan when he proposed a plan to save Medicare, they say. Romney’s campaign will argue that Perry is against the very idea of Social Security and Medicare, and that he will use Perry’s book to scare seniors in early-primary states with large retiree populations, such as Florida and South Carolina.

The Romney campaign also plans to use immigration to drive a wedge between Perry and his conservative base, by highlighting Perry’s opposition to a border fence and legislation he signed in 2001 allowing the children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas colleges and universities at in-state tuition. Without mentioning Perry by name, Romney pointed out at a town hall here in Dover that he vetoed similar legislation as governor of Massachusetts, declaring, “If you say, guess what, if you come here illegally, your kids will get [in-state tuition], that draws more people here illegally.” Romney strategists believe the immigration issue will be devastating for Perry with Tea Party Republicans across the country — and especially in important primary states like Arizona.

Team Romney intends to undermine Perry’s appeal on the right by painting him as the anti-government candidate who has spent most of his life in government — first as a state legislator, then as agriculture secretary, lieutenant governor and governor. They will tar Perry as an old-style Texas, pay-to-play, career politician whose state is worse off now than when he first took office. They will contrast Perry’s quarter-century in government with Romney’s 25 years creating jobs in the private sector. Romney hinted at this line of attack at a town hall meeting in Keene last week, declaring, “I won’t just have been somebody who watched jobs be created, I actually created jobs.. . . I spent four years in government. I joke that I didn’t inhale.”

Perry will have answers for these and other charges, and attacks of his own planned for Romney. But Romney’s team believes that Republicans want, above all, a nominee who can beat President Obama — and points to a recent Mason-Dixon poll in Florida that shows Romney defeating Obama handily if the election were held today, while Perry is in a statistical dead-heat with Obama. (Other polls show Perry well ahead of Obama in Florida.)

The Romney campaign will argue that Perry repels independents and can’t win in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — while Romney can.

Will this strategy work? As Romney wrapped up his Dover town hall, I asked a veteran reporter how he thought Romney did. People were leaving impressed with Romney, the reporter said, but no one was leaving “in love.” Therein lies Romney’s problem. Perry is the exciting guy in the cowboy boots who people fall in love with. Romney is the steady, clean-cut guy who waits patiently while you flirt with other candidates — hoping you’ll realize they’re not right for you. He’s the guy you settle for.

The question is: Are Republicans willing to settle in 2012?

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