Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are both exactly where they want to be.
Until Monday night's CNN/Tea Party debate, it looked like the Texas governor was in the sweet spot (or at least that's how it seemed to me). In a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released just before Monday's debate, not only was Perry leading Romney by a healthy margin (30 percent to 18 percent), he was also considered more electable (42 percent to 26 percent). When three-quarters of GOP voters consider electability their top concern, that's a big deal.
But again, that was before the debate in Tampa.
Perry had some good moments and some very bad ones, which is hardly unusual for any front-runner. What came through during the debate, however, is that Perry doesn't have a front-runner strategy. Indeed, it's not clear that he's got any strategy at all other than to be Rick Perry, the guy who walks on stage looking like he's ready to chest-bump anything that walks, swims or crawls.
With the exception of his needlessly controversial characterization of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme," Perry seemed bizarrely unprepared for the attacks thrown his way. And even on that score, Perry's responses to Romney were largely substance-free. He offered some debate zingers but failed to offer anything like a suggestion for how he would fix Social Security. If he'd done so, he'd inoculate himself from Romney's demagogic charge that Perry wants to destroy it.
Speaking of inoculation, that's a fighting word for Perry these days. He was tag-teamed by former Sen. Rick Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann on his decision to require mandatory vaccination for all 11- and 12-year-old girls against human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause cervical cancer. Bachmann attacked Perry for his abuse of authority and for allegedly doing a favor for the vaccine's manufacturer, Merck, whose chief lobbyist used to be Perry's chief of staff.
Perry has said the decision was a mistake insofar as it should have been debated in the state legislature first. Perry should have left it there, but then he told Bachmann, nervously, "I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended." Unfortunately, he made it sound like he was taking offense not at the insinuation of bribery, but at the suggestion he could be bought so cheap.
That, in turn, set up Santorum to attack him from the religious right, catching Perry almost totally unprepared.
Perry's support for the vaccination is defensible, while some of Bachmann's attacks were dismayingly demagogic. At times she made the vaccination sound like grotesque human experimentation, with Perry forcing a "government injection" upon "innocent little 12-year-old girls."
But the fact remains Perry was unprepared for the ambush. He was also caught off-guard when his sweetly platitudinous support for the Texas version of the Dream Act (giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition at Texas universities) invited boos from the Tea Party audience.
Amidst all of this, Romney was, figuratively speaking, stroking his white cat and cackling. For much of the last year, Romney's plan was to use Bachmann to destroy Tim Pawlenty and then run as the "anybody but Bachmann" candidate. That was always risky, but it's far from obvious that Romney could have beaten Bachmann in South Carolina. But, as fate would have it, the plan actually worked too well, and Pawlenty was pushed out of the race entirely.
Now it turns out that Romney can use Bachmann (and Santorum and Ron Paul) against Perry, too. And, even better for Romney, Bachmann will likely destroy what little plausible electability she had by attacking Perry from the right.
Meanwhile, Romney is hanging back, looking ever more presidential as the pack tears at Perry like jackals softening up the kill for the patient lion waiting just beyond the tree line. Or, to violently switch metaphors, Romney is drafting behind Perry until it gets close enough to the finish for him to slingshot in front.
It's a strategy particularly well suited for Romney because he's not an exciting GOP front-runner. Fair or not, he's a lot like Sen. John Kerry in 2004, who was going nowhere until Howard Dean self-destructed.
The problem for Romney is that it's a plan that depends entirely on forces outside of his control. Perry's a dogged competitor who is famously interested in learning from his political mistakes and improving his campaigning techniques. Quite simply, he can get his act together before it's too late.
Both candidates are way they want to be -- which means one of them is wrong.