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Tonight’s GOP Debate: How Each Candidate Should Attack Rick Perry

Since the last full-scale debate in Iowa, Perry’s entrance into the Republican nomination contest and rapid ascension in the polls has been remarkable. The last two national surveys of Republicans show him opening up a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney, and edging up into the high thirties overall. The latest poll from Iowa gives him a double-digit lead over Straw Poll winner Michele Bachmann. The latest poll from South Carolina shows him beating second-place candidate Romney by better than a two-to-one margin. Most shockingly, a new poll in Nevada has him leading Romney in that Mormon-rich state long considered to be Mitt’s ultimate citadel. So will anyone in this suddenly endangered GOP field go after him in tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library? 

Actually, one candidate already is: Ron Paul, whose campaign is buying national television time, possibly even during the debate, to run an ad contrasting his endorsement of Ronald Reagan in 1980 with Perry’s endorsement of Al Gore in 1988. It’s a clever use of the Reagan hook, and it relies on the fact that few of today’s Republican primary voters have any reason to know or remember that Al Gore was generally considered the most conservative Democrat in the 1988 field, making him a natural favorite for Perry, who was still a year or so away from his conversion to the GOP.  

Paul’s gambit provides a reminder of the occasional significance of candidates who don’t have a realistic chance to win the nomination: They can go after candidates who do in ways that attract attention and even move votes. And while most lesser candidates lack the kind of financial resources to fill the airwaves with campaign ads, they get serious exposure during the endless series of debates, where they are free to wreck havoc. Aside from Ron Paul, Rick Santorum is always game for an attack on first-tier candidates like Perry and Romney for their alleged lack of interest in the cause of outlawing abortion. And Newt Gingrich, who has even less to lose than Santorum, is ready to pounce whenever a candidate or a questioner says anything he considers stupid.

“Real” candidates, on the other hand, would prefer to let the small fry do the dirty work for them, unless the attack involves a powerful issue where the attacker might directly harvest votes from the attackee. It would therefore not be too surprising to see Michele Bachmann go after Rick Perry on immigration tonight, an issue many consider to be his Achilles’ heel among conservatives, and a potential wedge issue in Iowa where Bachmann is battling to keep up with Perry. Another highly possible line of attack might come from Mitt Romney, who has already done a drive-by on Perry’s lack of private-sector experience, which is a simple way of undermining the Texan’s otherwise potent “job-creation” record among conservatives who don’t believe government can do anything to promote economic growth. 

A tougher challenge for Perry’s rivals, however, involves the potentially toxic comments on Social Security and Medicare he (or an impolitic ghostwriter) made in his recent book Fed Up. As Newt Gingrich painfully learned when he criticized Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposals on the early campaign trail, there is zero percentage right now for a Republican candidate to go to the left of anyone else on “entitlement reform.” While it may be true that Perry’s remarks could hurt him in a general election, his GOP rivals see little room to exploit the situation. The same is true of potential criticisms of Perry’s economic record in Texas. His opponents would all be pleased if doubts were raised about the “miracle” Perry supposedly wrought on jobs and growth. But since his formula of low taxes, low public spending, deregulation, and hostility to unions and environmentalists is conservative gospel these days, they don’t want to be anywhere near a microphone when blasphemy is uttered about its effectiveness. 

All in all, the odds of major clashes between candidates tonight—other than those involving Ron Paul, who is not only dishing it out, but whose “anti-militarist” foreign policy views offer a target-rich environment for more conventional conservatives—may be dampened by the simple fact of where the debate is taking place. Aside from their desire to let someone else wield the cudgels, the candidates know that any attack in Simi Valley will be sure to draw a rebuke based on Reagan’s supposed “Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican.”

But the candidates would do well to remember that Reagan himself was known to throw an elbow now and then during his 1976 and 1980 presidential nomination campaigns. For Perry’s part, the new front-runner seems to enjoy a rhetorical barroom fight. His remarkable rise all but ensures that it’s only a matter of time before his rivals give him a chance to rumble.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.