But in Perry, Romney has a strong — and strongly credentialed — opponent with a history of being a tough campaigner, one who has vilified his rivals.
As he toured the Iowa State Fair on Monday, Perry took umbrage at the idea that Romney was the only top candidate with “private-sector experience,” even referring by name to the private equity firm Romney founded.
“I was in the private sector for 13 years after I left the Air Force,” Perry said, recalling his time running the family farm. “You know, I wasn’t on Wall Street. I wasn’t working at Bain Capital. But the principles of the free market, they work whether you’re in a farm field in Iowa or whether you’re on Wall Street.”
Asked about the Romney talking point that he knows “the real economy,” Perry said, “I’m thinking Texas is the real economy.”
Perry’s chief strategist, David Carney, went further, suggesting in an interview that the Perry campaign would try to cast Romney as a heartless hedge fund executive.
“I don’t think the country is looking for somebody to be a buyout specialist,” Carney said.
Romney has shown little eagerness to assail the contest’s newest entrant. Instead, he continues to attack Obama as a way of making veiled attacks on Perry, who has held elective office since 1985.
“I’ve spent 25 years in business,” Romney said Tuesday as he toured an elevator company in Merrimack, N.H. “I don’t have all the answers, but I know how to get them. In business, things are very unforgiving. You make bad mistakes and you’ll be gone. In government, you make bad mistakes and you just kick the can down the road and expect somebody else to pay for it, or blame the opposite party.”
It is too early to tell which argument will sway voters more.
“It’s a close call,” said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist who advised Romney in 2008 but has remained neutral in the current contest. “If you ask Republicans who’s a better jobmaker, a businessman or a politician, advantage businessman. . . . I’d have to give a slight edge not to the guy who held the ladder but the guy who climbed it.”
Not surprising, Romney and Perry emphasize those aspects of their records that are most favorable to them.
Romney talks more about his business career than his four years as governor of Massachusetts, when the state’s job-creation record was among the worst in the nation. The state did add jobs, about 1 percent, but it bested only Louisiana, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and Michigan and Ohio, both beset by declines in manufacturing.
Romney says he knows firsthand why businesses fail and why they succeed. But his record as chief executive of Bain Capital is a double-edged sword. Although he is partially responsible for big success stories — for instance, the founding of Staples, the office supplies superstore — he also was involved in controversial decisions, including the laying off of hundreds of workers.
Perry boasts that low taxes and loose regulations unleashed entrepreneurship in his state. But some experts have asked whether the “Texas miracle” might have less to do with Perry’s political leadership than with a boom in the state’s oil and gas industries and with population growth that has outpaced that of other states.
The Texas story is not quite as glowing as Perry tells it, either. A quarter of Texans lack health-care coverage, the highest rate in the country. The state ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending on public education and has the highest levels of toxic chemicals released into the water and carcinogens released into the air.
As Perry and Romney begin to exploit each other’s vulnerabilities, they may give Obama an advantage by revealing what lines of attack work against them and how the candidates respond to them.
Romney’s advisers, keenly aware that voters are frustrated by politics as usual, have begun casting Perry as a career politician. But if the label is correct, Perry has successfully positioned himself as an anti-government political outsider. And Perry’s advisers are presenting his decades in government as an attribute, even though that sort of experience has become a pox on many politicians.
“He’s actually gotten elected, been successful and turned Texas into a job-creating machine,” Carney said. “We tried electing somebody who had no experience in government, and this is what we got.”
Staff Writer Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.