Perry Topples Romney as Frontrunner, But Stays on Offense

It’s official: Mitt Romney is no longer the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary.

Major reputable poll after major reputable poll, conducted over the last ten days or so, shows Texas Gov. Rick Perry leading the former Massachusetts governor by significant margins.

The polling data suggests not only that Perry survived his early stumbles on the stump – most notably, his suggestions that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke could be guilty of “treason” if the Fed prints more money, and that Texans would accordingly treat Bernanke “pretty ugly” – but that Perry is, in fact, picking up steam.

The latest Rasmussen Reports poll of likely Republican primary voters, conducted on August 15, shows Perry leading Romney by 11 percentage points. The latest Gallup survey, querying Republicans and Republican-leaning independents between August 17 and August 21, shows Romney trailing Perry by 12 percentage points. Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which tallied Republican primary voters between August 18 and August 21, put the gap at 13 percentage points.

Yet Thursday found Perry, during a radio appearance on “The Laura Ingraham Show,” still peppering Romney with stiff right jabs, as if it were Perry who is the scrappy underdog.

“I think Mitt is finally recognizing that the Massachusetts health care plan that he passed is a huge problem for him, and yeah, it was not almost perfect,” Perry said on the program. That was a reference to conservative criticism that the plan Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts was too similar to President Obama’s – and to Romney’s frequent retort on the stump that his plan, while “not perfect,” was narrowly tailored the needs of his state.

Flanked by antique paintings at the Exeter Historical Society in Exeter, N.H. Thursday, Romney kept his attacks focused exclusively on President Obama, whom he accused of implementing “the most anti-businesses, anti-job, anti-investment policies that we have seen since Jimmy Carter.”

“You shouldn't be on the Vineyard playing golf,” Romney said, addressing Mr. Obama directly and referring to the president’s current vacation destination. “You should be doing your job, putting Americans back to work!”

The closest Romney came to addressing the Texas governor now outpacing him in the primary polls was when a teenager asked which of his GOP rivals Romney would be most likely to select as a running mate.

After engendering laughs by asking which of those in attendance had put the youngster up to asking the question, Romney thrust the microphone back at the boy and asked who he would pick. When the youth hesitated and said he didn’t know, Romney again drew laughter by quickly yanking the microphone back and saying: “There’s my answer, too! There you go!”

That exchange followed a testier one a day earlier, between Romney and a hostile female voter in Lebanon, N.H., in which the candidate found himself repeatedly demanding that the woman finish her question and allow him time to respond.

“You had your turn,” Romney said sternly, during a lengthy period of crosstalk. “You had your turn madam! Let me have mine. Let me have mine. Listen, I’ll give you have the microphone in a moment, but let me complete – I’m sorry, it’s my turn. You had yours; now it’s my turn. Would you please hold on a moment and let me finish?”

It remains unclear how willing Romney is to demonstrate the same steeliness against his Republican rivals.

“What Romney has done for most of the month of August is to lay low,” said Darrell West, the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. “And it’s always risky in politics to let the other guy dictate the pace of events.”

West said it is equally unclear how well Romney would do even if he made an affirmative decision to attack Perry.

“He's not a pit bull on the campaign trail,” West said in an interview. “He's never been very aggressive about going after rivals. He's done well this year by the fact that he hasn't had to go negative on any of his opponents. In 2008, he actually did most poorly when he did go on the attack.”