Peggy Noonan: Perry and Romney's First Face-Off

September 6th, 2011

Wall Street Journal
By Peggy Noonan
Sept. 3, 2011

On the Republican presidential side, things are winnowing down and speeding up. There will be five debates between now and Oct. 18, starting next Wednesday at the Reagan Library. The vetting is in high gear. Previous debates put Michele Bachmann on the map, did in Tim Pawlenty, and showed Mitt Romney had improved as a candidate since 2008.

Wednesday’s debate will be all about the current front-runner versus the former front-runner. Rick Perry will be the object of all eyes. He’s new, it’s his debate debut. He has to show he’s not a two-week wonder, his appeal is not overblown, he’s a formidable presence. The amazing thing about his rise is not that he’s become the front-runner, but that he’s zoomed to the top with such comfortable and sudden margins. Public Policy Polling last week had Mr. Perry at 33% to Mr. Romney’s 16%. CNN this week has Mr. Perry at 27% to 14% for Mr. Romney. What’s it about? Mr. Perry has to start convincing a broad Republican audience that it’s about his excellence and electability.

Mr. Romney has to regain his footing. Up to now in debates he has pretty much coasted—he’s big, radiant and smiling, the others were small, yappy and querulous. He can continue that way, as if he’s unruffled by an Austin interloper who’ll do himself in with his mouth or get done in by good oppo. Or he can conclude that new circumstances dictate new strategies, and fight. He ought to be looking to slow Mr. Perry’s momentum, to ding him and dent him, to get people raising a skeptical brow.

On Wednesday night they may wind up looking like two boxers circling each other in the ring and looking for an opening. Mr. Perry, about now, may be wondering if he should mention Mr. Romney’s Massachusetts health-care plan. Will that pack a punch, or is it old hat? Just in case, Mr. Romney will be formulating an answer: “I know health care is on your mind because I read the other day how you praised Hillary Clinton’s health-care plan. You called it ‘most commendable.’ You were still a Democrat then, right? Or were you a Republican when you praised HillaryCare?”

It will all be light taps and feints, decorous and dignified, but if ever two candidates saw each other as Exactly the Kind of Guy I Don’t Like, it would be Messrs. Perry and Romney. Mr. Romney’s people see Mr. Perry as a dopey Texas barbarian. Mr. Perry’s people see Mr. Romney as Northeastern, elite, effete and opportunistic. If they go head to head through the fall and winter, their contest could wind up looking like a scene in “Raging Bull.” “I’ll wipe that smile off your face, pretty boy. I’ll do what Jake LaMotta did to Marcel Cedan, I’ll barely break a sweat and you’ll be in the corner screaming at your valet, ‘Cut me, George, cut me!'”

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