Perry's Dangerous Debate Temptation

Written by David Frum on Tuesday October 11, 2011

Rick Perry has thrown away his opportunity to make a good first impression. Will tonight's debate be a last chance to correct a negative view?

I think I can guess the advice Gov. Perry is receiving in advance of the debate. He needs to "go on the attack," hit hard on Romneycare and the individual mandate - just as he's done in his tough new campaign ad.

Problem: Such an attack may remind Republican voters of what many of them regard as Romney's greatest flaw. But it does nothing to assuage concerns about Perry's flaws - and it is Perry's own flaws that have sliced his support since he declared his candidacy.

Pretty obviously, a lot of Republicans -maybe as many as three-quarters - want to vote for a plausible more conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. For a brief moment, many of them hoped that Perry might be that guy. Then Perry set about convincing them that he was not that guy. Until and unless Perry corrects that negative impression he has built over the past six weeks, it does not much matter how little those Republican voters trust Romney. They have to nominate somebody, and lacking a plausible alternative, Romney is the only somebody on the field

If anything, it is Romney who has most to gain from a confrontation tonight. Perry has exposed another vulnerability for himself - the anti-Mormon comments of the pastor who introduced Perry at the Values Voters Summit. Perry has declined to respond to those comments, except to dismiss them as a "distraction." (Wasn't that the same defense Congressman Weiner used?) Tonight Mitt Romney will get a chance to ask him about the anti-Mormon comments in person. Perry has already proven himself not very nimble in debate. He'd be well advised to prepare an answer in advance - and one that makes clear that a Perry presidency would be a government for Americans of all faiths, and none.