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."