Over the last several years, I have been asked many times whether I would ever consider a run for public office. I usually answer, "If I wanted to run for office, I wouldn't have spent most of the last decade committing my every political thought to writing." Watching Mitt Romney and Rick Perry repeatedly pulling gotcha quotes out of each others' books — from Perry's attacks on Social Security to Romney's double-talk on health care reform — demonstrates the major risks that political manifestos carry. Indeed, it seems more like personal vanity than good strategy to publish before campaigning.
The two men atop the Republican polls have certainly thrown the books at each other over the last month, but to two very different ends — and with very different results. So far, Romney has gotten the best of the exchanges. In fact, it seems as though Romney has set a trap for Perry into which Perry keeps falling, and unless the Texas governor starts acting like a frontrunner, he won't remain one for long.
Before Perry entered the race, Romney dominated the polls, at least among those declared for the nomination, and so his strategy was simple and effective: Don't engage. In debates, Romney would either ignore attacks from the other candidates or give cursory rebuttals while extolling his own record. Romney focused his own attacks on Barack Obama, allowing the former Massachusetts governor to appear presidential — and inevitable. Instead of attempting to define the others in the race, Romney focused on defining himself — even though Republicans saw plenty of Romney in 2007 and 2008.
Perry is on the brink of disaster. Instead of defining himself as a confident frontrunner, Perry seems intent on making Mitt Romney the central subject of the race.
Contrast that with Rick Perry, who came into the race with momentum and enthusiasm, but was mostly unknown outside of Texas. On paper, Perry looked like the ideal candidate for Republicans to put against Obama. Unlike the president, Perry has a long history as a successful executive, serving as governor for the past 11 years. Texas has had eye-popping growth in jobs during Perry's tenure, to the point where other states visit Texas to see how to compete. Perry's success turned Texas from a competitive state to a practical fiefdom for Republicans. He seemed the perfect antidote to Obama's executive fumbles.
Of course, that relied on Perry's ability to present himself as that perfect antidote, or at least the best of the options available to voters. A candidate who enters a race late has to work harder at making that case to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack. That takes discipline and a campaign that understands strategy, which are both critical qualities on their own for voters to consider when choosing a contender for the difficult task of unseating a sitting president, since only three presidents in the past century have lost bids for a second term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. (Gerald Ford lost his bid for his first full term.)
For Romney, that meant that he needed to change his strategy to engage — but only with Perry. Romney needed to push Perry into engaging with him on defense rather than focusing on defining himself in a positive manner, and maybe goad Perry into attacking Romney more than doing either. So far, that strategy has worked even better than Romney had to have hoped. Helped in no small part by the other candidates in the race, Romney has Perry reacting rather than acting, to the point where Perry's second campaign video had nothing to do with Perry's policy platform but trying to focus on edits between the first and second editions of Romney's book.
Needless to say, this has Perry on the brink of disaster. Instead of defining himself as a confident frontrunner, Perry seems intent on making Mitt Romney the central subject of the nomination race. Perry should have a great narrative to offer as a governor who has had to battle Obama's regulatory adventurism to create jobs and prosperity in Texas over the last few years. Last Thursday's debate was the nadir of Perry's derailed strategy, where he clearly rehearsed an attack on Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper more than promoting his own record and offering detailed policies — and proved woefully inadequate at delivering the attack.
Fortunately for Perry, the moment has not entirely slipped away. A new CNN poll taken in the days after that debate shows Perry still leading the field, although with a slightly reduced margin over Romney. If Perry wants to reclaim the momentum, he needs to take a page from Romney and ignore the anklebiting from the also-rans on stage. Perry needs to make jobs and the economy the main topic of the debate, making the case for his leadership rather than attempting to rebut Romney's arguments for his leadership. Instead of producing videos attacking Romney's campaign book, Perry should be issuing one video after another highlighting Perry's Texas record and how Perry wants to duplicate it on the national scale.
In the end, most voters in the Republican primary won't care which candidate wrote that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme or simply run as a criminal enterprise, nor will they make too much out of the edits between first and second editions of campaign books. Voters will make their decision not on gotcha moments, but on the policies and track records of the GOP presidential hopefuls. Or at least, they will if the candidates offer a positive vision of their policies, accomplishments, and plans for the future. If Perry fails to focus on making that presentation, he will have squandered a golden opportunity, and will have no one to blame but himself.