ORLANDO – Trying to rebound from a shaky debate performance that raised questions about his preparedness for the national stage, Republican presidential contender Rick Perry on Friday invoked Ronald Reagan’s call for “bold colors, not pale pastels.’’
The implication by the brash Texas governor was that his party’s best hope of taking back the White House is to embrace his magenta-bright brand of conservative politics, not the softer hue offered by the other leading candidate in the race, the well-heeled former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.
“It’s not who is the slickest candidate or the smoother debater that we need to elect,’’ Perry said at the forum sponsored by the American Conservative Union that is part of a three-day Republican Party of Florida convention. “We need to elect the candidate with the best record and best vision for this country.’’
Perry casts Romney -- who oversaw a health care overhaul in Massachusetts that, like the president’s plan, requires people to buy insurance -- as “Obama-lite.’’ Romney says Perry’s criticism of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme’’ makes him too extreme to win a general election.
Their contrasting appeals reflect a central question facing Republican voters in 2012: Are they looking for a rock-ribbed conservative who can stir their soul or a Main Street moderate who can beat President Obama? More than 15 months from the 2012 election, the 3,000 Republican activists gathered here seem divided on that question, though Saturday’s straw poll will offer a clue.
The final answer will determine the direction of the Republican party in the wake of the conservative tea party movement, which tends to prize passion over pragmatism.
“Traditionally, I’m a values voter, but my first priority this year is beating Barack Obama,’’ said Todd Marks, a Tampa lawyer leaning toward Romney. “He brings a lot to the table.’’
Adam Putnam, the state’s agriculture commissioner and a former congressman who has not yet endorsed a candidate, said Perry’s less polished debate appearances would cause some voters to have second thoughts.
“There’s a short game and a long game,’’ he said. “Our nominee has to have genuine conservative principles, but he also has to be able to win swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Defeating Obama is the goal.’’
Perry has shown an aggressiveness in the early stages of the campaign that helped raise his profile among conservatives, but also threatens to alienate swing voters: attacking President Obama's Middle East policy as the president was about to give a diplomatically delicate speech on the subject to the United Nations and lambasting Romney for his support of the administration's "Race to the Top," an education reform initiative that has won the support of a number of prominent Republicans, among them, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Romney, meanwhile, is trying to drive a wedge between Perry and his conservative base over the immigration issue, a rare instance where Perry has shown some signs of moderation, opposing a border fence and supporting college tuition breaks for students brought here illegally by their parents as children. "I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean you don't have a heart," Romney told GOP activists here. "It means you have a heart and a brain."
Interviews with straw poll delegates found that those who are more confident about depriving Obama of a second term tend to be less compromising when they size up the Republican field.
“I’m not that worried about beating Obama, though I think we’ll have to work hard,’’ said Bette Lewis, a bookkeeper from North Port active in the tea party movement. “I want a true conservative. I want someone who is going to make sure this country stays free.’’
The tea party’s zeal for ideological purity is best articulated by some of the underdogs in the race, like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., ex-Sen. Rick Santorum and businessman Herman Cain. Their candidacies hinge on convincing voters that their conservative convictions will offset any weaknesses in their campaign organization or fundraising in a race against a sitting president.
Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who founded the House Tea Party Caucus, repeatedly warned the crowd on Friday, “Don’t settle.’’ Pointing to Obama’s dwindling approval ratings, she said, “He hasn’t reached the basement yet. I have no doubt President Obama will be a one-term president.’’
In the latest Winthrop poll in South Carolina, which showed Perry narrowly leading Romney, 61 percent said it was more important to pick a nominee who matches their beliefs than one who can defeat Obama. A recent Quinnipiac poll in Florida didn't ask that question, but it suggested Romney was the stronger candidate against Obama even though more Republican voters prefer Perry.
The only major Republican candidate openly advocating moderation is Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has yet to make much headway in the polls. On Friday, he acknowledged his positions on civil unions and climate change are “some beliefs that I know some in this room may not share’’ He said Republicans should be able disagree on some issues and unify around their core beliefs in lower taxes and limited government.
“To win in 2012 and beyond, we must appeal to the tea party and to conservative Republicans,’’ he added. “But we must also bring into the tent moderate Republicans, independents and yes, conservative Democrats…This doesn’t mean we must abandon our core principles; just the opposite. We need a party that can sell those core principles to the broadest possible audience.’’