WASHINGTON – Rick Perry's Republican rivals are struggling to find a coherent, easy-to-grasp argument against the Texas governor, who tops GOP presidential polls despite attacks from all sides.
In fact, it's the "all sides" nature that complicates the opposition's message. Republican voters who watched last week's presidential debate and its aftermath might wonder: Should I see Perry as too conservative or too moderate?
Perry is the newest face in the GOP race and his opponents are determined to define him for primary voters, casting him as liberal, conservative and unelectable. They hope their characterizations of the front-runner take hold before he has a chance to sway opinions.
Mitt Romney depicts Perry's criticisms of Social Security as too far to the right. "If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party," the former Massachusetts governor said recently.
On immigration, however, Romney and other opponents say Perry veers too far left. The governor opposes a fence along the entire border with Mexico, and he granted in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants in Texas.
Meanwhile, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann leads a chorus that contends that Perry is too lax about individual freedoms because he wanted Texas to vaccinate all schoolgirls against a sexually transmitted disease.
This anti-Perry strategy forces voters to sort through subtleties and contradictory narratives. Fair or not, it's easier for people to grasp bold, unambiguous images of politicians as conservative or liberal, strong or weak, and so on.
Overall, Perry's record is mostly conservative. But he's parted ways with his GOP base on a handful of issues, including immigration and the vaccine for the human papillomavirus.
Perry's rivals will get more chances to probe for political soft spots this week, in a series of forums in Florida and Michigan. On Thursday, Republicans candidates gather for another televised debate.
For now, their tactic is to "criticize Perry on Social Security from one angle, and on immigration from the other," said Dan Schnur, a University of Southern California political scientist and veteran of several Republican campaigns.
Terry Holt, a Washington-based GOP strategist, said Perry continues to do well because his opponents' criticisms are missing a broader point while barely denting his main strengths: His image as a bold, honest, can-do leader.
"It's a bit too tactical, and it ignores the larger imperative: Can you be an alternative to the vision Barack Obama offers? Can you be authentic?" Holt said.
Rich Galen, another veteran GOP campaign strategist, said the real goal of Perry's rivals is to convince enough Republican activists — including those who like Perry — that he can't defeat Obama.
"What they're trying to do, really, is not influence Republican primary voters directly," Galen said. Instead, they want to convince "independents and moderates that Perry is not trustworthy or is too kooky."
If die-hard conservatives believe crucial independent voters would reject Perry in November 2012, Galen said, they may turn to Romney or others, even if they like Perry's positions. "It's a bank shot," he said.
Some Republican insiders question the strategy of trying to turn conservatives against Perry with the "he can't beat Obama" claim.
"I don't think they can make that case," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., a 19-year House member. Perry has a good staff, strong fundraising skills and "a good story on jobs" as governor, said Kingston, who backs fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich in the presidential race.
Schnur agreed. "Arguing electability is usually a loser in the presidential primary," he said. "Ask Hillary Clinton."
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll of Republicans put Perry in front as the candidate most likely to beat Obama. But a USA Today/Gallup poll suggests the latest hits from his rivals might have an impact. By more than 2-to-1, GOP voters said Perry's criticisms of Social Security would hurt rather than help his chances of being elected president.
Independent voters were even more likely to say Perry's Social Security remarks would make him less attractive to them and the entire electorate.
For now, Perry's rivals are taking a boiled-spaghetti approach: Throw everything against the wall, and see what sticks.
Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman hurt by Perry's rise, is hammering his bid to require vaccines for Texas girls to combat a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer.
"I oppose anyone who mandates a family's health care choices and violates the rights of parents," Bachmann says in campaign video.
She also has pointed out that the company that makes the vaccine, Merck & Co., employed Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, as a lobbyist in Texas, and that the drug company had donated to Perry's campaigns.
In last week's debate, Perry noted that parents had the right to reject the vaccines. But he said he mishandled the policy, which was never implemented.
Some of Perry's vulnerabilities stem from making the sort of concessions that virtually all governors make to balance competing interests. Despite boos from the debate audience last week, Perry defended his decision to grant in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants seeking citizenship.
"I'm proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, 'You go be on the government dole,'" Perry said.
The stance has a pragmatic aura. And that could clash with Romney's efforts to paint Perry as an ideologue who's out of the mainstream on matters such as Social Security.
Of course, there's a flip side to portraying Perry as too conservative on Social Security and too liberal on immigration and public health. It forces Romney, his closest challenger, to play Mr. Establishment on Social Security, and tea party advocate on immigration. That could be tricky for a man whose authenticity is sometimes questioned.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he supports Bachmann and wants to be convinced of Romney's conservative credentials.
Romney's Massachusetts health care record "is very damning to him, as well as some of his changing positions on major issues like abortion," Franks said, a reference to the health care plan that was the basis for Obama's overhaul law. He also cited "our uncertainty as conservatives as to what he would really truly do in terms of some of those great issues related to things like the Supreme Court."