Romney, Perry bet big on GOP direction
Rick Perry's debate debut here was hot and uncompromising. He threw elbows at Republicans from Ron Paul and Karl Rove on up. Offered an opportunity to retreat from his attacks on Social Security, he promised more "provocative" language about the program. Mitt Romney, by contrast, was measured and sober. He presented himself as a competent manager who can fix the economy and beat President Barack Obama.
Perry's bet is on a conservative, confrontational and mad-as-hell Republican Party. Romney's is that GOP activists want, above all, to win and will come to recognize that nominating the Texas governor would be an act of political suicide.
The divide between the two men reflects an ongoing debate that's splitting the Republican Party both on the campaign trail and beyond it. Some of its leaders, looking back at the 2010 midterm elections, believe that the party — and the nation — are ready to gorge on red meat as never before. The American people, goes this line of thinking, recognize that entitlements must be addressed and that old-style demagoguery over the issue has become less effective.
Others believe deeply that the laws of political gravity still apply — that Social Security and Medicare reform must be handled with great care, if at all, and that 2012 will hinge on jobs-focused swing voters who are in no mood to revisit the still-popular New Deal-era program during a time of economic uncertainty. The divide is both strategic and ideological, and as Romney and Perry emerge clearly as the party's two presidential poles on the issue, it will take on an even higher profile than it did during the punishing debate over Paul Ryan's budget proposal.
"I think it's naive for the political elite to think that Social Security can't be discussed, can't be fixed, can't be done better in this new, modern era," said Dave Carney, Perry's chief strategist, after the POLITICO/NBC debate. "That's crazy."
What's crazy, say gleefully incredulous Romney aides, is nominating a GOP candidate who thinks that "by any measure Social Security is a failure."
"The Republican Party has to defend the position of the nominee," said top Romney adviser Stuart Stevens. "Every House candidate that runs, every Senate candidate that runs, would have to run on the Perry plan to kill Social Security."
Perry's plan is not to kill the program, say aides to the Texan. He would protect benefits for those who are retired or nearing retirement age. But Team Perry is as unapologetic as its candidate about wanting to reshape the program for younger Americans.
"It is a Ponzi scheme, and we'll talk about how to fix it," said Carney, borrowing from his candidate's language. Carney said they would lay out their own reform plan, but he and other top Perry officials refused to say whether they'd do so before Republicans start voting.
For the Texas governor, the debate offered a choice, and in matters of tone and substance, he took it. Stylistically, his phasers were always set on kill: He attacked not only Paul — who reveled in the attention from a leading candidate — but also Rove, his own former strategist in Texas. Romney was also a target, as was President Obama, whom Perry suggested is an "abject liar." (The more measured Romney called Obama a "nice guy [who] doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again.")
Perry's advisers said the barrage of punches was intended to show voters that he has the toughness to lead.
"One thing voters are going to see through the course of the campaign is that Gov. Perry knows how to stand his ground," said spokesman Robert Black. "He knows how to take a punch and he knows how to give one."
Perry's tone may be less about strategy than his own character: The Texas governor's high command indicated that there was little that they could do to rein in the combative Aggie Yell Leader turned Air Force pilot and undefeated politician.
"No amount of staff work or moderator barbs or opponent barbs is going to change who he is," said Ray Sullivan, Perry's communications director.
But there is evidence that Perry can adopt a more restrained approach — recently following his comments about Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and last year after his first debate performance in the Texas gubernatorial primary was panned — and some of his supporters suggested that at the very least he ought to be more precise on Social Security.
"Perry has to make it clear he will preserve and protect Social Security for the older folks," said Henry Barbour, an influential Mississippi Republican and Perry backer. "I am sure he will get that done, but Romney hopes he has an issue."
More broadly, though, some Republicans think Perry's fire resonates with a radicalized, Obama-era GOP base.
"The Republican electorate is red hot right now, so his tone was fine and probably helpful," said uncommitted Republican strategist Sara Fagen.
"Did you witness the GOP primaries in 2010?" asked Curt Anderson, an unaligned GOP strategist. "I'm not saying he was perfect, but he was in sync with the lion's share of primary voters I predict."
Anderson, who directed freshman Sen. Ron Johnson's (R-Wis.) campaign last year, pointed to how his client pre-empted attacks from incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold — by reasserting, like Perry, that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme."
And other Republicans noted that Sen Marco Rubio also took on entitlements in his campaign last year in Florida with no repercussions.
Romney and some establishment Republicans believe such talk offers the makings of a Goldwater-style landslide loss in a general election and will even stop Perry from capturing the Florida Republican primary.
"Our nominee has to be somebody who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security," Romney said in the debate.
Alex Castellanos, who is now unaligned but worked against Perry in 2006, said electability-minded Republicans would come away scared following Wednesday's performance.
"He did not alienate the GOP base of primary voters tonight, but he didn't show them an electable Republican who can win the middle, independents and soccer moms, and that is essential if a Republican is going to defeat Barack Obama," said Castellanos. "If he begins to lose steam in head-to-head [polling] matchups with Obama, he becomes Bachmann, just another conservative who can't beat Obama."
Perry backers like their odds in a head-to-head against Romney. "He took a big step tonight towards making it clear this is between Romney and Perry to take on Obama," said Barbour.
Yet even as they face the prospect of a fading Bachmann — who registered an unmemorable performance Wednesday — Romney's camp, mindful of their 2008 lurching, doesn't seem inclined to push him further to the right to best Perry.
The former Massachusetts governor spent the last week making clear, in a series of appearances in which he refused to remake his message for tea party crowds, that he would pay homage to the movement but wouldn't pander.
Instead, as Wednesday's debate made clear, Romney will hammer Perry on Social Security as a way to make a broader electability argument.
"His approach on Social Security was the low point of his performance, and he'll have to deal with that in coming weeks in terms of how he would address the program in order to minimize the impact of attacks," said New Hampshire GOP strategist Rich Killion, formerly a Tim Pawlenty adviser, of Perry.
And the Texan will give at least as good as he gets.
"Rick Perry has not won elections in Texas because he is loved," said Castellanos. "He has won because he sticks a fork in his opponent's eyeballs."
Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith are reporters for POLITICO. The New Hampshire Union Leader and POLITICO are sharing content for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.