Romney's Task: Show Perry isn't Electable

Written by David Frum on Monday September 12, 2011

Republicans watched Rick Perry's stumbling, unprepared performance in last week's debate - and decided they were watching a president in action.

The latest CNN/Opinion Research poll has Perry at 32% among Republicans nationwide, Romney tumbled deep into second place at 21%. (If Palin entered the race, Perry would still lead Romney 30-18, with Palin drawing 15%.)

Perry's greatest advantage is his perception as the most electable in the race: 42% of Republicans rate him the most electable, as opposed to only 26% for Romney. Interestingly, Republicans don't seem to care very much for Perry personally: only 25% see him as the most likeable Republican candidate. (In that sense, Republicans did see on their TV the same testy, anxious presence I saw on mine.)

It's dangerous to interpret these kinds of open-ended poll questions. Republicans may have many different things in mind when they describe Perry as "electable."

They may think that the Texas record on job creation will offer an unanswerable argument in 2012. Or they may think that America won't vote for a Mormon. They may be saying that Perry's statements on Social Security are the kind of bold truth-telling the country hungers for. Or they may be thinking that the statements are unfortunate, but non-lethal. Who knows?

Whatever the implication, the message for Romney is the same. Either directly on the debating platform tonight - or through ads and other media in the days ahead - he must offer Republicans an advance glimpse of the campaign Barack Obama will wage against Rick Perry in 2012.

It won't be a pretty sight, but Republicans need to know the full measure of their candidate's vulnerability before they commit to a nominee whose own words (however carelessly and unmeaningly written) will be used as evidence that the GOP wants to repeal Social Security, Medicare, and the theory of evolution.