The Trouble with Romney and the Perils of Perry

Mitt Romney's support and his negatives are baked into the GOP primary. To Romney's supporters, either his various contradictory policy and issue positions don't matter or they're outweighed by his "electability." They think he is best positioned to defeat President Obama, and so far nothing seems capable of dissuading them. His air of inevitability is gone, but his support remains steady in the 20s. He isn't going up, and he isn't going down.

To Romney's detractors, his various and contradictory policy and issue positions render him unacceptable. But they don't need those flaws pointed out. They already know them. That's why there is a large Anybody But Romney faction in the primary. And that's why despite his having been campaigning for the GOP nomination for about five years now, and having built an experienced national staff and raised a ton of money and launched effective attacks on President Obama's economic record, and his being "next in line" because he came in second last time, Romney remains stuck in the 20s. He isn't going up, and he isn't going down.

Rick Perry came into the race as a frontrunner for the Anybody But Romney vote, and is paying the price for that early success. As a frontrunner, he attracted attacks from the second and third tier candidates who also wanted the Anybody But Romney crown when his campaign was still getting off the ground. Those attacks didn't help Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann ended up destroying her own candidacy, while Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich didn't engage in them at all. They stuck to their own game plans, and have benefited from the damage that Bachmann did to herself and to Perry at the same time, and from the damage Perry did to himself in the debates.

So now, the Perry campaign is doing three things to get back on track. One, he is rolling out his energy and jobs plans. Two, he is floating the idea of skipping debates. And three, he is launching attacks on Mitt Romney. The attacks are fair -- accusations that RomneyCare includes illegal aliens, which it does, and that he's unreliable to conservative voters, which he is; and that he has flipped on everything from gun rights to abortion to global warming, all of which are true -- but are they likely to help Perry? And is skipping the debates the right idea?

Taken on their own, these are reasonable tactics to take. There are too many debates, and Perry is right that they have mostly been centered on tearing the candidates down. But they have also built two candidates up, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, and vaulted Bachmann's candidacy for a while. Attacking Romney is also reasonable, since he is a very problematic candidate and he's a frontrunner. But I doubt either tactic will help, and both are distracting from Perry's core economic message. The debate skip idea makes him look weak, despite the fact that the 21 or so debates still on the schedule do in fact get in the way of retail politicking that's crucial to winning in Iowa and South Carolina.

Aside: I omitted New Hampshire because, like Romney's problems as a candidate, it's baked in. Romney will win it. So the other campaigns should plan accordingly.