In a new website, in a controversial ad that was launched and then quickly pulled, and in the now-infamous touching episode during Tuesday’s debate, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney is handling rival Rick Perry as if the Texas governor’s poll numbers were not at a paltry single digit. He is, in short, treating Perry more and more like Perry has Herman Cain’s numbers.
Why? Because despite the terrible reviews of Perry’s debate performances and the ugly polling data that show him struggling even in his base in the South, Perry is still Romney’s biggest threat. Perry did, after all, best the field with a $17.2 million fundraising haul in the third quarter of the year, making him a very serious rival to the former Massachusetts governor as the campaign moves into the next stage: the ad war over paid airwaves.
Although Perry’s fundraising has slowed from its supersonic pace of late summer, recent federal-election records show him keeping pace with Romney in the money chase and even beating the front-runner during some key time periods, like the final week before the third quarter closed, when Perry raised an impressive $3.7 million and Romney brought in nearly as much, $3.36 million.
Romney’s newly aggressive attacks against Perry appear to be part of a put-him-away-now strategy that attempts to raise doubts about his rival’s electability. A Web ad the campaign posted on Tuesday, then yanked on Wednesday, depicts Perry misspeaking, fumbling his words, and awkwardly pausing during the recent string of GOP candidate debates. The video was titled “Ready to Lead?” and was pulled after CNN officials complained about footage of their correspondents criticizing Perry’s debate performances.
If Romney can fatally weaken Perry now, it would allow him to dominate in the early primaries. Strategically, a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses would be followed by an anticipated victory in the New Hampshire primary, resulting in strong momentum as the voting shifts to South Carolina and Florida.
“You’ve got the guy down a bit, you don’t want to let him up off the mat,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant. “A mistake for a lot of campaigns is the front-runner doesn’t engage, and when they do, it’s too late. Particularly when Perry has the resources to go up in the air with negative ads, I think it’s smart for the Romney campaign. I think the Romney people are making the educated bet, probably the right bet, that there’s no one else in the field that can rise up and can be a sustainable long-term challenger.”
A source close to the Romney camp said, “One of these two guys is going to be president. You learned a long time ago in this business that when you’re getting attacked, you better answer.”
That Romney could be vulnerable to Perry’s millions, or the millions raised by his super PAC, lends a peremptory, inoculative quality to his elevated pressure on Perry. “If you’re Romney and you’re looking around the field you’ve got there … the only one who’s proved he can raise any money is Perry,” said Andrew Smith, a political-science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “He has to make sure that Perry isn’t able to consolidate his position as a front-runner in polls, because he’s certainly a front-runner in fundraising.”
The stepped-up offensive comes at a curious time, with Perry at his lowest point in the polls since he entered the race in mid-August. Romney is trading the above-the-fray persona he has cultivated at the risk of elevating Perry, putting him on the same plane as the front-runner. A NBC News/Marist poll of likely South Carolina primary voters published last week had Perry at 9 percent, just three points higher than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is not a serious contender for the nomination.
The flare-up during Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas stemmed largely from Perry confronting Romney over his hiring of a lawn-care company that employed illegal immigrants, prompting Romney to recycle his criticism of a Texas law that Perry signed granting tuition discounts for the children of illegal immigrants. But Romney went beyond policy, taunting Perry by pointing out he had already had “a tough couple debates,” and reaching out to touch his shoulder — a personal space invasion that’s a no-no during debates.
Romney also irritably appraised Perry’s debating style as discourteous: “You have a problem with allowing someone to finish speaking. And I suggest that if you want to become president of the United States, you have got to let both people speak.”
The website careerpolitician.com, first registered in 2007 when Romney was running for president against four-term Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., now attacks Perry’s economic record in Texas and compares his policy on illegal immigration to President Obama’s.
Meanwhile, Romney has all but ignored businessman Cain, who has surged in the polls and now is Romney's closest competitor in most of the recent national polls. “(Romney) is likely to be the nominee,” Lehane said, “and really only Perry can stand in the way of that. Of the current people in the field, the one who is most likely to be a challenger at the end of the day is the one who has the resources to go the distance.”
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams called the recent offensive “a continuation” of Romney’s strategy for the last few weeks. “Gov. Romney has been contrasting his record as governor and in the private sector with Rick Perry’s 27 years as a career politician and his liberal immigration policies for the last few weeks now,” he said.
Perry Communications Director Ray Sullivan called Romney’s aggression “not a new phenomenon,” but said “this week’s high-profile activities” were proof of Romney’s nervousness about Perry.
“The Romney camp and Gov. Romney himself know that Rick Perry is the most likely candidate to be the conservative standard-bearer, given his record,” Sullivan said. “They’re threatened by Gov. Perry’s strong record as well as fiscal and social conservatism, and they realize that we have the campaign organization and financial resources to win. Despite all of the efforts to belittle and dismiss, the Romney people know that Rick Perry is a very serious and credible threat to their now six-year-long presidential campaign.”
The intraparty squabbling, confined not just to Romney and Perry but in blooming evidence across the field in Tuesday’s debate, has some Republicans concerned about the party’s chances against Democrats next year.
“It just seems to me that we’re all better served if the Republican field remains focused on the agenda and the top priority, which is defeating President Obama,” said Ovide Lamontagne, the New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate, who said on Thursday he was “not close” to making an endorsement. “The last debate was different than the others in kind in that there were a number of instances in which the candidates were directing their answers to other candidates rather than the issues, and that’s not going to be helpful.”