Rick Perry needs to figure out that his problem is not Mitt Romney. If all he's going to do from now at the debates is attack one particular individual (and that individual is not Obama but a fellow Republican), then it's all smooth-sailing to also-ran status no matter how many excellent plans he rolls out or how often he makes his fan swoon by raining fire and brimstone down on Mitt Romney for flip-flopping on A, B and C.
His problem is the fact that his campaign up till now remains enamored of ridiculous notions like "debates don't matter" (which may have been valid in Texas but never on the national stage), but also the fact that both he and his campaign have been hideously amateurish and apparently completely at a loss competing at this level. The fact that Dave Carney's last two Presidential campaigns were Bush-Quayle '92 and Dole-Kemp '96 is not particularly confidence-inspiring.
Even more confidence-sapping is the fact that no member of the Perry campaign's upper echelons was able to figure out that running for President of the United States (where debates - no matter what you think of these ones in particular - do matter) is very different in both degree and kind from running for Governor of Texas. It took not one, not two, but three profoundly underwhelming debates (not to mention poll numbers steadily crashing like Obama-era economic growth numbers) before Dave Carney, Rob Johnson & co. realized "Oh s***! Hey Rick! Let's try something different ... Let's prepare this time!"
I'm no expert, but if I were advising Perry, I'd tell him that the solution is for him is not to carry on with this obsession with Mitt Romney, and it's certainly not to ape Sir Robin and bravely run away from the debates, but to shift the cross-hairs away from Mitt Romney and firmly settle them on Newt Gingrich.
Not as a target for destruction, but emulation.
So far the only person who looks wholly better after these debates than before them is Newt Gingrich.
So why not study what obviously works and try and modify it to work for you?
To me, the first thing to notice about Newt's debate performances is that, by and large, he answers the question asked. Once you realize that, it's really no mystery why he always comes off well from these things. His answers are always topical to the question - which means he's not always returning to the same buzz-phrases and slogans e.g. "get America working again" when the question was about America's relationship with the EU or restarting the NASA shuttle program. It really does grate on the ear.
So here's my strange new idea for Governor Perry; answer the question. You may challenge the premise, force the moderator to ask it differently, or restate it yourself so you can answer it the way you want, but you must at least be seen to engage with the question and provide an answer to it. You can't just respond to a question on, for example, stem cell research with "get America working again."
Second, and just as important, Newt obviously knows who the real enemy is, and its not any one of the men or the woman on the stage with him. His sharp refusal to allow himself to be led into attacking his fellow Republicans when the real enemy is Obama and his passionately loyal support staff in the supposedly non-partisan objective media (who are clearly using these debates to make the Republican candidates bloody themselves and create divisions within the GOP's activist base), probably won him more hearts and minds among the GOP Primary electorate than the entirety of his campaign prior to then.
The GOP base may despise the DC Republican establishment and harbor a deep intense dislike for Barack Obama, but it absolutely, positively, white-hot hates the mainstream media.
So here's a novel idea; tap into that. Pull a Gingrich, with some Perry thrown in.
If I were advising Rick Perry, I'd advise him to take the first opportunity he has, look into the camera at the next debate and say something like this;
Over the past few months, we've had several of these debates and with the exception of one or two of us on this stage, we've all fallen into the news media trap of just beating up on each other instead of focusing on the big picture - how to get America working again. The first step of getting America working again is making sure that Barack Obama is a one-term President, that his continued assault on the American economy with job-killing taxes and regulations, on business, on our industries and job creation and job creators stop. And the only way that will happen is if we make sure that come the end of January 2013, Barack Obama would be referred to as the former President of the United States.
And you know what? Every single person on this stage, any one of them here, would be a better President than the man we have in the White House today. So I'm making a promise right now, that whoever wins our great party's nomination, I'm going to support him, or her, 100%. Because we absolutely cannot afford another four years of Barack Obama. So I'm going to make a promise right now, that I'm not going to be attacking anyone on this stage again. You don't build yourself up by tearing someone down. Instead, I'm going to be talking about how we can get our fiscal house in order, how we can make America energy independent, how we can get our investors to start investing again, so our economy can start growing again, and we can get America working again.
If Perry can successfully pull something like this off, he's going to make millions of Republicans who have already written him off sit up and take notice. Better yet, he will take the elder statesman role and make anyone who attacks him look like an ******e.
If he can then make sure he does the following ...
Defend Texas: Don't (let anyone) mess with Texas. This means no longer letting moderators or his fellow candidates get away with talking smack about Texas' wages, health insurance, unemployment rate, education, etc. In Nevada, Perry was asked about the "high" number of uninsured in Texas and he only spends about ten seconds pointing out that most of the uninsured are illegal aliens and instead of going deeper into the havoc caused by illegal immigration to Texas' statistics - thereby neutralizing the issue, he then turns around and spends the remaining time attacking Romney on his former landscaping company.
- Explain and defend his Policies: His energy and tax reform plans are certainly going to come under fire, from Romney, Santorum, et al. and certainly from the moderator who may or may not be repeating Obama campaign talking points. He needs to get his facts and figures right, he needs to get his delivery and word choices right so the average viewer would be able to understand how it all works. This means taking the time to research and anticipate where the attacks are going to come from and how he's going to respond to them in his own voice. This means practice.
- Defend himself: The Gardasil Executive Order, Trans-Texas Corridor, the so-called Texas DREAM Act, etc. He needs to work with his people and come up with the best way to explain his position and close the door on them. I've found that explaining exactly how the instate-tuition program works i.e. 1 year for citizens versus 3 years for non-citizens, no taxpayer funding for tuition, apply for citizenship and the fact that only 1% of Texas college students are under the programs tends to make a difference in how the program is perceived even in the most conservative circles - not necessarily good, but not a deal breaker either.
The N*****head Rock issue hasn't come up yet - I'm not betting against anyone who says it will. Perry needs to very carefully repeat the salient fact that neither he nor his parents actually owned the place and that they immediately painted over the sign as soon as it was brought to their attention and that they ultimately turned it over so it would not be seen. Then he needs to go all medieval on the Washington Post - call it a partisan hit-piece based on the hearsay of conveniently anonymous sources with its only aim being character assassination. Last but not least, state the belief that Stephanie McCrummen, with the knowledge of her editors, made up most of her anonymous sources.
Another issue that is certain to come up is Perry's unfortunate decision to mess around with the Obama Birth Certificate issue. My advice to Perry; put this to bed immediately. Say again that you were messing with the interviewer and poking fun at Obama - then, without any equivocation, clearly state that you believe that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to an American mother, making him the legitimately elected President of United States ... until January 2013.
- Attack the Media: In my idea of an ideal debate performance (or interview) where Perry has to deal with the Birther issue, he'd shut the issue down as described above and then immediately segue into noting that the news media didn't seem quite so exercised when Sarah Palin was being accused of not being the mother of her own son. Segue from that to noting that the media was also not so concerned when so many people on the Left, including many celebrities were accusing George W. Bush of bringing down the World Trade Center ...
My advice for any of the candidates, not just Perry, when they're asked about the Occupy Wall Street protests is to acknowledge their right to free speech, and immediately start noting the difference in coverage when it was the Tea Party that was exercising their own right to peacefully assemble and protest.
In other words, make the news media's many instances of ideological hypocrisy the focus of your answer whenever you can. When they ask about your religious views, start talking about Jeremiah Wright and the news media's curious lack of curiosity when it came to 23 years of Barack Obama sitting in his church.
Bottom line? There's nothing quite as effective for capturing the hearts and minds of Republicans as making an open enemy of the news media.
... then I would bet anything that he would be rocketing back to the top of the polls.
After the debates, Perry's major problem is convincing the GOP Primary electorate that he is good enough, that he's the better bet - not that Mitt Romney (as if it's news) is a flip-flopper.