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Tuesday September 20, 2011
Thursday's Republican presidential debate in Orlando will be a key moment for Rick Perry. The newness is off the Texas governor's candidacy, and his support has leveled off and even slipped a bit in some recent polls.
Perry received mostly good reviews from his debate debut, at the Reagan Library on Sept. 7, but less positive notices after his second outing at the CNN debate in Tampa, Fla., on Sept. 12. How he performs in the rubber match in Orlando, put on by Fox News, Google and the Republican Party of Florida, will provide an important directional signal: Is Perry moving up, or down?
After Tampa, some critics suggested Perry should put in some extra study time before the next debate. But sources in the Perry camp say he's approaching this one in "essentially the same way" as previous sessions. Preparing for Perry's first debate, his staff put him behind a podium for a mock session, to get a feel for the timing and flow and the sheer strangeness of standing on stage with seven other candidates. Now, Perry's debate prep is mostly small group discussions.
Ask the Perry camp about the Social Security "Ponzi scheme" issue and you'll get a confident response. Although Perry has quietly backed away from his most incendiary words on Social Security -- in the last debate, he said "Ponzi scheme" only to observe that others had also used the phrase -- Team Perry feels confident he has the upper hand on Mitt Romney.
Perry's aides know that most Republicans, even if they think "Ponzi scheme" is over the top, agree with Perry (along with Romney and other GOP candidates) that Social Security needs serious reform. But they also know that how you say it matters, and Romney seems to come at Perry from a Democratic perspective, which is not exactly an advantage in a GOP debate. "Romney ends up sounding like Harry Reid or the DNC when he makes those attacks," says the Perry source.
As for the other issue that dominated the last debate, Perry's camp thinks the HPV vaccine controversy is mostly over. "From our standpoint, it has been thoroughly vetted and exhausted and is not a timely issue," says the source. Other candidates might disagree, but it is true that the vaccine issue a) has been discussed at length, b) is probably no longer an advantage for Michele Bachmann after her wild speculation about HPV, and c) has been neutralized by Perry's clear statement that he regrets handling the matter the way he did.
That regret was a big deal for the ultra-confident Perry. Asked for any comparable mea culpas that the Texas governor has issued in recent years, the campaign source couldn't think of any.
One area in which Team Perry expects more attacks is immigration. Even with two previous debates, the issue hasn't received a full airing, and there will be candidates, probably led by Romney, who will hit Perry on his opposition to a border fence and E-Verify, as well as his support for in-state tuition for illegals and a guest-worker program. Perry's aides know that a significant number of Republican voters oppose his positions, but they believe he can defend himself with the credibility of a border state governor -- and that he can also attack Romney as inconsistent. "Like many of the issues that Romney focuses on, he has had multiple positions, and that's certainly fair game," says the Perry source. If the battle is joined, immigration could be the fireworks topic of the night.
For Perry, each high-profile appearance is particularly important because many voters, even Republican primary voters, don't really know him. In a recent New York Times poll, 28 percent of GOP primary voters said they didn't know enough about Perry to have an opinion of him, and 17 percent more said they were undecided. Put them together, and that's nearly half the GOP primary electorate that needs to learn more about Perry. Each debate gives those voters more information on which to judge him.
The question is whether Perry will expand his support or diminish it. "A new person in the race, be it Bachmann or Perry, can get a great head of steam, and a lot of enthusiasm, because everybody wants a perfect candidate and they think this might be that person," says a well-connected GOP insider not affiliated with any campaign. "But soon they realize that the person they put on the pedestal, like everybody else, has some flaws. That's what's happening with Perry. He has some vulnerabilities."
Those are now becoming clearer. Thursday night will help determine just where Perry's campaign is going.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.