Will Romney "pull a Pawlenty" in GOP debate?

Gage Skidmore/flickr

Close up of Mitt Romney speaking over Labor Day weekend

Article Highlights

  • Will Mitt #Romney go after Rick #Perry in Wednesday's GOP debate? @marcthiessen

    Tweet This

  • Perry's lead not only is wide, it is deep @marcthiessen

    Tweet This

  • Perry does not need to score any knock-out punches to win the debate @marcthiessen

    Tweet This

Will Mitt Romney go after Rick Perry in Wednesday's GOP debate?

Romney advisers told me recently that he was planning to stay above the fray and leave the attacks on Perry to the other candidates. But with his precipitous slide in the polls, Romney may no longer have that luxury--assuming the wildfires in Texas are under control enough to allow Perry to attend the debate. Perry has pulled ahead of him in Iowa, South Carolina, Ohio and Nevada (a state Romney's team had taken as a given), has tied him in California, and holds a double-digit lead over Romney in three national polls.

"Will Romney repeat these jabs when Perry is standing next to him on the debate stage?" -- Marc Thiessen

Perry's lead not only is wide, it is deep. According to NPR, Perry "has substantial leads over Romney among men and women and across all age groups. He leads in all geographical regions save for one, the East, where Perry is tied. And, ominously for Romney, Perry is just four points behind Romney with liberal to moderate voters and [Romney] trails Perry with rare or non-church-goers. That is remarkable."

Ducking the chance to confront his opponent in person after attacking him before other audiences, proved to be the death blow to Pawlenty’s campaign. Romney cannot afford to repeat Pawlenty’s mistake.

Faced with this juggernaut, Romney appears to be shifting strategy--and has begun taking shots at Perry on the campaign trail. Last Tuesday in Texas, without mentioning Perry by name, Romney took a swipe at the Texan's 27-year political career, telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, "I have spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with the problems of the real economy. Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out." A few days later in Florida, Romney took another veiled shot at Perry--this time for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants--telling a group of Hispanic Republicans, "We must stop providing the incentives that promote illegal immigration. As governor, I vetoed legislation that would have provided in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants."

The question is: Will Romney repeat these jabs when Perry is standing next to him on the debate stage? He may not have a choice. Romney will almost certainly be asked about his stepped-up attacks on Perry. If he passes on the chance to repeat them, he risks "pulling a Pawlenty"--ducking the chance to confront his opponent in person after attacking him before other audiences. This proved to be the death blow to Pawlenty's campaign. Romney cannot afford to repeat Pawlenty's mistake.

Going on the attack is not without risk for Romney. On immigration, Perry could very well respond by pointing out that in a 2005 interview with the Boston Globe, Romney expressed support for Sen. John McCain's legislation to provide amnesty and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Perry could easily turn Romney's immigration attack into an opportunity to hit him on his principal weakness: flip-flopping. If Romney goes after Perry as a "career politician," Perry will probably point out that Romney has spent most of the past 17 years seeking public office--running for Senate in 1994, for governor in 2002, and then running nonstop for president since 2007. The big difference between them, Perry can say, is that he won all his races.

While there are risks for Romney in attacking Perry directly, there are also risks in relying on others to do it for him. Romney advisers are hoping Michele Bachmann will tear Perry down the way she did Tim Pawlenty in the Iowa debate. But it takes two for a good political brawl. Unlike Pawlenty, Perry is way ahead of Bachmann in the polls, and he does not need to engage her. He will probably handle Bachmann much as he did second-tier Republican candidate Debra Medina during the 2010 Texas gubernatorial debates--treat her respectfully, defend his record when needed but mostly ignore her. The same goes for Ron Paul and the rest of the GOP field.

Perry has an added advantage going into the debates: The news stories asking "Is Rick Perry dumb?" and the speculation that he might "implode," have all helped Perry by lowering expectations. Perry simply needs to put in a credible performance and introduce himself to the American people as a serious, likeable and viable challenger to Barack Obama. The fact is, Perry does not need to score any knock-out punches to win the debate. Romney does. After all, a front-runner's strategy of staying above the fray only works when you are the front-runner.

Marc Thiessen is a visiting fellow at AEI.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author

 

Marc A.
Thiessen
  • A member of the White House senior staff under President George W. Bush, Marc A. Thiessen served as chief speechwriter to the president and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Prior to joining the Bush administration, Thiessen spent more than six years as spokesman and senior policy adviser to Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). He is a weekly columnist for the Washington Post, and his articles can be found in many major publications. His book on the Central Intelligence Agency's interrogation program, Courting Disaster (Regnery Press, 2010), is a New York Times bestseller. At AEI, Thiessen writes about U.S. foreign and defense policy issues for The American and the Enterprise Blog. He appears every Sunday on Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" and makes frequent appearances on other TV and talk radio programs.


    Follow Marc Thiessen on Twitter.

  • Phone: 202-862-7173
    Email: marc.thiessen@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Justin Lang
    Phone: (202) 862-5948
    Email: Justin.Lang@aei.org

What's new on AEI

image The money in banking: Comparing salaries of bank and bank regulatory employees
image What Obama should say about China in Japan
image A key to college success: Involved dads
image China takes the fight to space
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 21
    MON
  • 22
    TUE
  • 23
    WED
  • 24
    THU
  • 25
    FRI
Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Graduation day: How dads’ involvement impacts higher education success

Join a diverse group of panelists — including sociologists, education experts, and students — for a discussion of how public policy and culture can help families lay a firmer foundation for their children’s educational success, and of how the effects of paternal involvement vary by socioeconomic background.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, April 24, 2014 | 12:00 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Getting it right: A better strategy to defeat al Qaeda

This event will coincide with the release of a new report by AEI’s Mary Habeck, which analyzes why current national security policy is failing to stop the advancement of al Qaeda and its affiliates and what the US can do to develop a successful strategy to defeat this enemy.

Friday, April 25, 2014 | 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m.
Obamacare’s rocky start and uncertain future

During this event, experts with many different views on the ACA will offer their predictions for the future.   

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.