Every time Texas Gov. Rick Perry has stepped on stage for a televised debate, he has done so as a front-runner.
It will be no different on Wednesday, when the upstart presidential candidate participates in his first Republican primary debate since he bounded into the race a little more than three weeks ago. Perry is used to having a target on his back.
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But the debate broadcast by NBC News from Simi Valley, Calif., will test Perry’s mettle like none of his three matchups for governor. The king of Texas politics will be out of his comfort zone in a nationally televised debate that could touch on Libya and Afghanistan. It is likely Perry will be attacked not just from the political left, as in his past debates, but from the right by some of his fervently conservative rivals. He’s also expected to be grilled on his record by debate moderators eager to vet the newest White House contender.
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And here’s a little secret Perry’s team isn’t trying to hide, as it seeks to lower the sky-high expectations for his national debut: Behind the podium and under the bright lights, he is solid, but far from spectacular.
“He’s completely forgettable and wins every time,’’ said Texas-based Democratic consultant Jason Stanford, who worked for Perry’s 2006 opponent, Chris Bell. "He does exactly and only what he needs to do to win."
Perry refused to debate his Democratic opponent in his most recent campaign in 2010, citing former Houston Mayor Bill White’s failure to release tax returns from the 1990s when he was U.S. deputy secretary of energy and chairman of the Texas Democratic Party. White had released more current tax information.
“Debates are not the governor’s preferred method of communicating and not his strong suit,’’ said Perry campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan, who worked as the governor’s chief of staff. Of Perry’s prior debate performances, Sullivan said, “Memorable moments and impact were minimal.’’
That would be fine by Perry’s team in Wednesday’s debate, the first of three major face-offs in 16 days. A front-runner’s goal is typically to avoid major, pedestal-rocking gaffes, while lesser-known candidates strive for breakout acts.
But in Perry’s case, there is considerable pressure for him to back up his turbo-charged surge in the polls with an equally impressive debate performance. If Perry can live up to the hype surrounding his fledgling campaign, he will be a formidable candidate.
"The stakes are enormous for him because it’s his first debate and he’s the front-runner. That’s a unique combination that makes this a high-wire act," said Bill Miller, a veteran Texas lobbyist and consultant. "People have high expectations and he doesn’t want to leave them disappointed."
Staying calm could be Perry’s biggest challenge. The veteran politician struggled to keep his cool when attacked in 2010 Republican primary debates by an unusually poised political rookie, Republican activist Debra Medina, who ran in a three-way contest against him and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Newspaper articles described Medina as "memorable" and "independent" while Perry was called "tense" and "testy."
“I don't know how to explain this to you any simpler,” he snapped when questioned about the accuracy of the jobs figures he was using.
Medina, a tea party renegade who always packed a pistol and wanted to abolish property taxes, surged in the polls after the first debate and won an invitation to the second. “He had a pretty cavalier attitude, kind of like a frat-boy joking around. He didn’t seem to take it very seriously,’’ Medina said in a telephone interview from her office in Wharton. "That may work in Texas, but I think voters around the country are going to feel like he needs to earn their votes."
Perry’s past debates not only reveal his limitations as a public speaker, they also offer on-the-record transcripts of his positions on controversial issues. In the 2010 debates, Perry stood by his support for a law offering in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. He said the E-Verify database to check an employee’s immigration status "would not make a hill of beans’ difference in what’s happening today." He also defended efforts widely opposed by religious conservatives to vaccinate sixth-grade girls against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.
"The tricky thing is going to be talking about the old things in the new way," Stanford said. “Certain things are going to be a lot harder to explain on the national stage.’’
Austin-based Republican consultant Todd Olsen, who has worked both for and against Perry, compared the former yell leader for Texas A&M University football to his favorite team. The Aggies have a conservative offense, Olsen said: Run the ball right, run left, run over the middle.
“It’s very much a workmanlike attitude or game plan to win football games,” he said, “and I think Perry has always had that as well.”
Perry was first elected to the state legislature in 1984. He was serving as lieutenant governor when George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, winning a promotion to the top job in the state without having to run a campaign.
In two debates against his 2002 gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Tony Sanchez, the political newcomer’s inexperience showed. While Sanchez appeared flustered and struggled to speak within the time allotted to him, Perry spoke calmly and in well-polished sound bites.
He also went toe to toe with the moderators. In the middle of the debate, Texas Monthly editor Paul Burka pounced on Perry, telling him he got his facts wrong in a response about Medicaid.
Perry didn’t flinch.
“Let me correct you because you’re wrong, Paul, and you’re not wrong many times,” he said, with a slight smirk. “But in this case, you are.”
It was the most compelling moment of an otherwise drab debate. Perry went on to easily defeat Sanchez and win his first outright gubernatorial election.
“He operates within a very narrow range when he’s debating,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant and former press secretary to Hutchison. “He doesn’t make any huge mistakes, but he doesn’t hit unscripted grand-slam home runs either.”
In other words, don’t expect any memorable lines akin to Ronald Reagan saying “There you go again” to Jimmy Carter in 1980. Perry is also likely to steer clear of major missteps, like Gerald Ford insisting in 1976 that “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”
Mark McKinnon, a Texas-based Republican strategist who helped another governor (George W. Bush) make the leap to the White House, said of Perry, "Despite nine campaigns, all winners, he has limited debate experience and none on the national stage. It’s going to be a big jump for him and a hot spotlight."