This past week was, I think, the most interesting of the campaign so far. If we look back to a week from today, Rick Perry introduced his very solid energy plan as the first of three parts of his overall economic plan. He has also begun laying out his flat tax proposal. That rollout showed a campaign finding some new energy and generating some positive headlines, a change in its fortunes from the previous couple of weeks. But Perry came into the week trailing front-runners Mitt Romney and Herman Cain in the polls thanks to some weak debate performances, and he had to take some risks.
Going into Tuesday’s debate, the top three candidates had very different tasks before them. Mitt Romney had to do what he has been doing from the beginning of the cycle. He had to go into the debate and come out of it unscathed and inevitable. The sooner he can appear to have the nomination locked up, the better for him. Cain had to go in a front-runner and, unlike Perry and Bachmann and even Cain himself earlier in the campaign, come out a front-runner and a viable alternative to Romney. He had to take the debate as an opportunity to solidify his credibility by ably defending 9-9-9, his signature tax reform plan. Rick Perry’s task was very different. He had to bring a new energy (not an energy plan, actual energy) to the debate, and he had to dent Romney’s aura of inevitability. The first part of that was risk-free, but the second wasn’t. No one had managed to put a scratch on Romney during any of the previous debates despite his glaring policy and credibility problems. Perry also had to brush back against Romney’s repeated attempts to smear him over a pastor to whose church Perry does not belong. He had to make aggressive campaigning a two-way street. In fact, of the top three, Perry’s task was the most difficult. He had to bring the fight to Romney and damage him significantly without damaging himself.
Romney’s armor showed gaps in the debate’s early going, as Rick Santorum and Rick Perry both went at him over RomneyCare. Romney’s choice to defend his Massachusetts health care reform has been the largest strategic decision he has had to make so far, and it has always been a gamble for him. The base hates it. It is the basis upon which ObamaCare was built. Romney has tried to sell it by touting how popular it is in Massachusetts. To conservative voters outside such a deeply Democratic state, that isn’t much of a selling point. Tuesday’s debate represented the first time RomneyCare became a genuine problem for him. His credibility came under the most direct fire to date. He had to defend RomneyCare directly and didn’t do a very good job of it. Cain also took fire over 9-9-9. That fire has continued, and he has started tweaking it — hence, the 9.1-9.1-9.1 in the post’s headline. We’re likely to see some 9.2’s and 9.3’s before it’s all said and done. The more Cain tweaks the plan, the less coherent both he and his plan appear to be.
I still think that Perry accomplished what he needed to accomplish in Tuesday’s debate, though he may pay a price for it. Romney got rattled and Cain’s plan looks less serious than it did. Romney’s very personal video ad against Perry launched Wednesday (and pulled within hours of its release) may reveal some newfound desperation and disarray within his campaign. If so, that’s big: Romney’s campaign is a national machine composed of seasoned veterans. Some lived through the Michael Steele era at the RNC; nothing should rattle them by now. Romney has continued the negative campaigning against Perry (but no one else) with a “new” website called CareerPolitician.com, but that site has already boomeranged back on Romney: He has owned that domain name since his last losing political run in 2007. Who’s the real career politician now?
Rick Perry’s run in the debate was a risky one, and he may trade some short term poll weakness for long-term gains. Polls a week or three from now will tell us if the risk/reward equation works out for him. I suspect it will; people like a leader and they like a fighter, and as much as we all claim to hate negative campaigning, it’s effective as long as it’s not overly personal. Romney’s “I can’t have illegals here for Pete’s sake, I’m running for office” is going to stick to him. Cain’s twin gaffes this week, on foreign policy and abortion, probably represent long-term problems for him and open him up to questions about his readiness to lead a national campaign to unseat Barack Obama. If he blows easy questions, he is likely to blow harder ones too. At the end of the week, he looks strong in the polls but weak in the soundbites. That’s an opening for Perry to claim some of Cain’s support.
In the midst of all this, possible VP candidate Sen. Marco Rubio sustained a character attack from the Washington Post and ended up punching back hard enough to knock the paper down. Give that man the hero tag and start shadow debates with a faux Joe Biden.
The week that began with one campaign finding some new energy ends with another campaign imploding — Michele Bachmann’s paid New Hampshire staff quit today en masse. Quitting a paying job in the Obama economy? Something must be very very wrong in that shop. Bachmann is barely campaigning outside urban Iowa now and may be the next candidate to leave the race, which brings up a question: Who would get her endorsement? Will it matter?
Read another view on the campaigns from Roger L. Simon here.