Perry, Romney Head Into Decisive Third Debate

Perry, Romney Head Into Decisive Third Debate

ORLANDO -- Dueling pitchers Rick Perry and Mitt Romney will face off tonight for the third time in three weeks in Republican presidential debates.

Perry won the first game by throwing plenty of heat and Romney prevailed the second time with finesse pitches and lots of help on offense from other players. Now, it’s time for the rubber game.

As they head into the FOX News/Google debate ahead of the Republican Party of Florida’s straw poll, the stakes for Romney and Perry are huge.

Romney has seen his own support solidify following Perry’s blazing entrance to the race last month. But the former Massachusetts governor has to prove that it is more than just a political version of “cash for clunkers” in which people who were eventually going to back Romney anyway just moved up their decisions.

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That’s been good enough to put Romney in second place, but not good enough to win him the nomination. The latest Quinnipiac poll in Florida tells the tale: Whether Sarah Palin runs or not or even if the rest of the field disappears, Perry maintains a lead of between 6 points and 9 points in the must-win primary.

As the milder of the two, Romney faces an enthusiasm gap with Perry. Romney has been trying to close the gap by dampening the ardor of Perry’s supporters by raising questions about the Texas governor’s electablity. But as Power Play often notes, the problem with running an electability campaign is that primary voters tend to resent candidates who make the opposing party’s arguments for them.

The more Romney hits Perry on Social Security, the more Republican primary voters, who mostly agree with Perry on the subject, will be annoyed by the line of attack. Romney may be trying to goad Perry into taking a stance that is either too radical to satisfy skeptical establishment GOPers or too moderate to satisfy the conservatives who now prefer Perry, but the strategy comes at a cost. Hillary Clinton learned that in 2008.

Plus, the more dire President Obama’s political condition becomes, the less likely Republicans will be to play it safe with Romney.

Romney needs to find a away to get to Perry’s right on an issue or two to show that he is in step with the GOP mainstream. In their debates so far, Romney has relied on the lower-tier candidates to do a lot of the work for him.

Sen. Rick Santorum has been one of the biggest helps, bashing Perry on social issues, national defense and whatever else he can while offering no ill words for Romney. But the blows landed by Reps. Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann have hurt Perry the most. The conservative purists have tried mightily to hobble Perry, giving Romney the chance to stand back and watch the carnage without facing many questions about his own record.

That’s partly because Romney’s record is old news. His mandatory health-insurance program in Massachusetts, his Mormon faith and his evolving positions on social issues have been chewed over by the press and the GOP base since 2007, so Perry’s deviations are much more interesting.

Plus, Perry is more offensive to absolutists like Bachmann and Paul because he has appropriated their anti-government message without adhering to the complete conservative codex.

But Romney has to make his own case to the base. Perry’s success is rooted in the unease with which grassroots GOPers view Romney and they want to hear more than Romney’s argument that he would be a more effective master of the federal bureaucracy than Obama. They don’t doubt that, but do wonder if Romney really shares their views.

Romney has been edging toward making the conservative case for his health law – that it punishes freeloaders – of late. That’s a good play. The issue is inescapable for him and he must change the narrative.

Similarly, Romney has to find a way to show that he speaks the same language of life as his fellow Republicans. It matters very much to the GOP base that their candidate has core convictions that are rooted in a deep personal faith and are unshakable in any political storm. They don’t mind some deviations, but like knowing that there are clear boundaries on key issues relating to social policy, foreign policy and domestic policy.

It’s time for Romney to be more than competent and genial and start showing what his core is.

For Perry, the challenge is exactly the opposite. Republicans have an immediate visceral sense of him because of his biography, his rhetoric and his policy priorities. But they’re not convinced that he has the sturdiness and competency to weather what will be a torrent of negative campaigning by Obama and his allies and still seem a plausible president to the general electorate.

So now it’s time for Perry to show some chops on policy.

He’s been sizing up Rep. Paul Ryan and his entitlement plans, which would be a good direction for Perry to go on the Social Security issue. Ryan’s ideas caused controversy in the Republican world at first, but have become increasingly accepted as the party’s baseline, especially as Democratic attacks on the Ryan plan have repeatedly come up short with voters. Perry’s friend, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, one of the GOP’s biggest brains on entitlement issues, can be his guide there too.

But Perry needs clearer answers on immigration, too. Perry’s more moderate position is a potential general election boon for Republicans as Obama can not likely win unless his Hispanic support tops 60 percent nationally, but he’s got to show that he understands the issue nationally and explain how Texas is different from the rest of the country on the subject.

Perry also needs to sound like a commander in chief. He made a big bet on foreign policy this week when he went to New York to take on Obama over Israel, but Perry still hasn’t outlined a cogent position on Afghanistan or given much guidance on the question of where he falls on the spectrum of interventionism – is he closer to the Bush/Obama approach or more of an America First kind of guy?

His views don’t have to align perfectly with the GOP mainstream, but he has to show that he’s building a coherent framework and that he is more than a good stump speech and a nice head of hair. Just as George W. Bush labored to shake the lightweight label in 1999 and 2000, Perry must prove to Republicans that his rhetoric is rooted in ideas.

From a tactical standpoint tonight, Perry has to do more than endure the beatings handed out from the orthodox conservatives Bachmann and Paul, and fend off Santorum’s skewers. He has to turn their attacks into opportunities to offer undecided voters a sketch of himself. This is when the situation calls for a change-up and for him to show that he’s tough but not unbending, as he winningly did with his apology for the HPV vaccine debacle.

But with Romney, Perry has to go hard and be able to show that he can deal with a foe who is unflappable because Republicans know that whatever Romney can bring in the way of coolness on a debate stage, Obama will be bringing even more next fall.