MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich.—Coming off a rocky debate performance that led some conservative elites to question whether he is prepared to handle the pressure of a presidential campaign, Texas Gov. Rick Perry acknowledged Saturday that his performance isn't on par with some of his Republican rivals. But, he told GOP activists at a party conference here, he makes up for his lack of debating skills with a consistent set of principles his opponents lack.
"No other candidate on that stage has the record that I have. Yep, there may be slicker candidates and there may be smoother debaters, but I know what I believe in," Perry said—an implied contrast his campaign is aiming to make with his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Perry's public performances alongside the more polished, more experienced Romney have sowed doubts about his readiness for the harsh glare of a presidential spotlight, and may be spurring a fresh round of speculation that a new candidate, such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will get in the race.
The Texan’s uneven answers in a Thursday debate in Orlando led to open revolt among the conservative elite. In a harsh editorial, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol called Perry's performance "close to a disqualifying two hours for him."
Perry's response is to paint himself as authentic, a quality that played well with Republican activists gathered for a biennial conference on this island in Lake Huron -- and a quality he implicitly contrasts with Romney.
"We don't need to select a nominee that blurs the lines between themselves and President Obama. And let me share something with you, I will draw a sharp contrast between President Obama and myself," Perry said. "Ronald Reagan, in 1984 I believe it was, he said it is time for bold, bright colors and not pastels. And that is where we are again in this country." Perry made a similar case earlier in the day to Republican activists in Florida, whose votes in a presidential straw poll will be announced Saturday evening. The delegates to the GOP conference here also are voting in a straw poll. Results of that balloting will be announced Sunday morning in Hotline On Call.
Six weeks to the day since he announced he would run for president at an event in South Carolina, Perry's pitch to Republican activists remains largely based on his decade-long record as Texas's chief executive. But Romney is making the case that he is the candidate best able to take on President Obama, and in the wake of doubts from the conservative aristocracy, Perry is beginning to acknowledge the importance to his own bid of electability.
Perry described an unscheduled stop he made in an unnamed town in South Carolina, where he "bailed out" of a bus and into a crowd. Americans, Perry said, "want someone that will stand up and say, 'Here is where I am going to lead this country. This is what I believe.'
"They want change in America. I know for a fact that Americans are ready for change, and they're not talking about the rhetoric of change, they're talking about a record of change. And I'm proud of my record in Texas."
Perhaps no other candidate in the Republican field is as certain of himself and as comfortable on the stump as Perry. But the conservative literati is not so sure, and Perry's pitch seems geared toward assuring them, and the hundreds of activists here on Mackinac Island, that he realizes there's still room to grow.
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