Rick Perry’s first month as a presidential candidate has almost been an unqualified success: He's surged past Mitt Romney to become the GOP’s new front-runner and was the focal point of Wednesday night’s debate. But the Texas governor’s rapid rise has also made him, as he put it, "the pinata at the party," one his rival candidates and the media have been eager to target.
They’re not struggling to find material: Even as he’s emerged as a formidable White House contender, Perry also has exposed an array of political vulnerabilities that threaten to sink his campaign. Whether they are a temporary roadblock or insurmountable weakness could hinge on how Perry handles the criticism.
“The only judgment you can make really based on the short amount of time he’s been in the race is how he responded to being a presidential candidate,” said Jim Dyke, a Republican consultant. “And I think he’s exceeded that test." Next, however, comes "intense scrutiny over specific issues, particularly from Democrat in the White House piling on in some places," Dyke added. "How he and his campaign addresses those issues is the next important test.”
Here's a list of some of the things in the Perry file that you can expect to hear more about from his critics:
1. Social Security: Perry hasn’t hesitated to grab the infamous “third rail” of politics—to the apparent delight of his chief rival, Mitt Romney. Criticisms of Social Security that previously had been aired in Perry's less-than-best-selling book, Fed Up, and before smaller audiences on the campaign trail found a national audience Wednesday night. At the debate, Perry didn't shy away from lambasting the popular retirement program, likening it to a con job. “It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there,” he said. “Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right.”
That could hurt Perry not only in a general election, but in a Republican primary. Seniors are an important constituency in several key early states—including Iowa and Florida—and are famously defensive about their retirement benefits. It gave Romney an opening during the debate, and the ex-governor took it. “Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security,” said Romney, whose campaign reiterated the criticism in a press release to reporters Thursday.
Perry's bare-knuckles approach also could raise questions among Republicans about whether he's the candidate best able to challenge President Obama in November 2012. “Republicans are concerned about Social Security, just as every American is,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist. “But to make it a big issue of your campaign by being so forceful about it means you’re getting off topic, away from jobs and economy.”
2. Treason: The Texas governor has a reputation for making off-the-cuff remarks that land him hot water. One of the most recent was his assertion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s handling of the money supply had been “almost treasonous.” That earned him rebukes from many prominent Republicans, including former Vice President Dick Cheney.
3. Secession: Several times, Perry has suggested that the Lone Star State, which entered the union in 1845, might leave again. Perry advisers said he was being lighthearted at a tea party rally where he made a a suggestion that Texas might secede but he has returned to the theme more than once, noting that when Texas joined the United States, it reserved the right to regain its independence.
4. "Liar": Perry didn't mince words when it came to the president either. At the debate, speaking about the state of security along the Texas border, Perry said Obama was either ill-informed or an "abject liar," for suggesting that crime has dropped in El Paso. It’s the kind of uncivil invective that turns off many moderate voters, and, again, could raise questions about Perry's viability as a general election candidate. “I think the jury is still out there,” said Bonjean. “He’s very direct and forceful, and voters like that. But you have to be careful about going too far over the top.” Romney, by contrast, criticized the president's economic policies but went out of his way to add that Obama is a “nice guy.”
5. Home state inequities: There’s a flip-side to the “Texas Miracle” that Perry loves to point to as evidence he knows how to create jobs. Although Texas has added jobs at a faster clip than the nation in the last decade, it features a sharp economic divide. Among the 50 states, Texas has the highest rate of citizens without health insurance: nearly one in four, according to a 2009 American Community Survey. More than 16 percent of Texas children lack health insurance—also the worst rate in the country. And Texas' high school graduation rate is the worst in the country. The state ranks 42nd among the 50 states in terms of the amount it spends per pupil on education—a figure that has dropped precipitously during Perry’s 10-year tenure.
Perry ducked questions about the large numbers of Texans without health insurance, pivoting instead to criticize a program Romney enacted as governor of Massachusetts that includes a requirement that residents buy health insurance. Dyke suggested that strategy won't cut it in future debates. “Every candidate has to defend their record," he said. "Being the newest one to the race, Rick Perry has some catching up to do.”
6. Climate Change/Evolution: This issue doesn’t have to be a stumbling block for Perry, but it could become one if he doesn’t handle it right. Perry doubled down on his assertion Wednesday night that the science behind climate change is shaky, reiterating remarks he made earlier on the campaign trail.
“Just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact," he said. In one of the debates more memoriable moments, Perry added: "Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”
Denying climate-change’s existence is a sure political winner in a Republican primary. But Perry’s incredulity—along with his amivalence about whether evolution should be taught in schools—has helped earn him an “anti-science” reputation that at least one of his opponents is ready to exploit. "In order for the Republican party to win, we can't run away from science," said ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in the Wednesday debate. "By making comments that basically don't reflect the reality of the situation, we turn voters off."
Perry could do better, some Republicans suggest, to make the argument over environment versus jobs. The American public is split on whether climate change is a threat, but people are much more inclined to side with jobs over trees during the sputtering economy.
“The jobs versus the environment message is a proven winner in the last Congress, and it’s a proven winner today,” Bonjean said. “If he can frame argument along those lines, he’ll win.”
After his whirlwind first month on the campaign trail, one thing is clear: Perry’s honeymoon is over.
“The Perry campaign got off to such a perfect start that, in my sense, it’s hard to sustain the momentum,” said Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union. “I fully expect him to kind of go back a few points on the polling.”
Still, Cardenas doesn't think Perry has to change to win. “Rick Perry is over 60 years old, and I assume he’s not about to drastically change his personality because it’s been so successful so far,” said Cardenas. “The man has never lost an election.”