Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a problem. The GOP primary has turned into a two-man race between him and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, it became clear during Wednesday's debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Unfortunately for the Texas governor, Republicans have learned the lesson of Sarah Palin.
In 2008, the Alaska governor was the fresh face. She promised to be a popular, plain-speaking running mate who could energize the GOP base and appeal to independent voters. Palin did energize the base, but she also turned out to be a polarizing figure who tarnished the party brand.
That's the Republicans' last war. And you know what they say about generals always fighting the last war. Perry's performance didn't spark flashbacks for veterans of the 2008 presidential campaign, but it did send up a warning flare.
Perry did a fine job of appealing to voters yearning for "someone who can get this country working again." That's music to Republican voters, as well as independents who have little faith in President Barack Obama's handling of the economy.
But he also showed a Palinesque weakness in allowing critics to get under his skin. Before the debate, fellow Texan Ron Paul attacked Perry, a former Democrat, in an ad that cited Perry's support for Al Gore's failed 1988 presidential bid. The spot called Perry "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader."
But Paul is not a serious candidate. During the debate, he advocated privatizing air traffic control and said that prescription drug regulation "does as much harm as good." The smart move for Perry would have been to ignore Paul, but Perry instead brought up another Paul hit -- that Perry lobbied the Clintons on Hillarycare. He elevated the fringe candidate.
When host Brian Williams noted that GOP guru Karl Rove had called Perry's rhetoric on Social Security "toxic," Perry replied, "Karl has been over-the-top for a long time in some of his remarks." Too personal.
I agree that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme that now takes money from the young to give to the old. But Perry went too far with: "I think the Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program, and it is a monstrous lie."
Romney, sensing the perfect opportunity to appear presidential, leaped in with: "We all agree and have for years that the funding program of Social Security is not working, and Congress has been raiding the dollars from Social Security to pay for annual government expenditures. That's wrong. The funding, however, is not the issue."
Romney's strategy throughout the year has been to be an understated presence in the GOP debates. Neither a target nor a standout, he. But Perry cannot become part of the wallpaper. He defends his record. He defends his positions. For better or worse, he fights back.
Whichever of these candidates prevails, the next GOP nominee will have a problem. In a recent Fox News debate, all of the GOP hopefuls said they would reject a deficit reduction deal even if Democrats offered $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases.
In this debate, Perry's first, he took a pass on the opportunity to appear more reasonable than the smooth talkers by saying he would accept a 10-1 package. It's a sad day when every one of these candidates would be afraid to cut a sweet deal.