To block Mitt Romney’s path toward the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Perry has reverted to a familiar form for him: attack.
He accused his rival of shifting positions on guns, abortion rights, gay rights, and an anti-collective bargaining measure in Ohio. “How do you change at the age of 50 or 60, positions on life, positions on guns, positions on traditional marriage?” he said on Fox News Oct. 25. “I mean, those aren’t minor issues.”
His campaign also unveiled a Romney “flip-flop scale,” complete with the Twitter hashtag #FlipFlopMitt, and hired a team of consultants, including Joe Allbaugh, the former campaign manager for George W. Bush who was part of the former president’s “Iron Triangle” of advisers.
It’s part of a take-down strategy that Perry has built a reputation for during his 27 year in politics.
“He’s going to go after Romney hammer and tong,” said Richard Land, leader of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention and influential leader in Republican religious circles. “Cross Rick Perry and he’ll amputate your legs. Get ready to see that.”
The Texan and his campaign aides “find your pressure point and they press on it with all their strength,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and Perry fundraiser who worked for Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison before Perry defeated her in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. “I don’t think he has any qualms at all about doing that to Romney.”
“Governor Perry is focused on policies that improve the economy and create jobs,” campaign spokesman Mark Miner said when asked about Perry’s attacks. “The governor will continue traveling the country talking about issues that matter to Americans.”
Romney’s campaign has been unruffled by the criticism, confident they are better prepared to respond to some of the same jibes he faced in his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid.
“The campaign has been expecting a wholesale negative assault from Perry for several weeks,” said Vin Weber, a special adviser to Romney’s campaign.
On the stump and in debates, Romney has adopted crisper, practiced rebuttals to questions about his shifting positions on such social issues as same-sex marriage.
Romney, who once ordered state clerks to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples, was asked three times at a New Hampshire town hall meeting on Oct. 10 about his position opposing such unions now. Each time, he delivered the same answer with only slight variations.
“I think as a society we are wise to encourage marriage between a man and a woman for the purpose of raising our kids,” he said.
Perry isn’t the only Republican stepping up attacks on Romney. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. released a web video today splicing together contradictory statements from Romney on the economy, abortion and gun rights -- all shown on a split screen with a windup toy gorilla doing continuous back- flips. Huntsman has staked his campaign on making a strong showing in New Hampshire, where polls show Romney with a substantial lead.
New websites started by grassroots supporters are dedicated solely to rebutting charges against Romney, 64.
One such site, whyromney.com, features on its home page more than two dozen topics, ranging from “social security” to “Ronald Reagan,” that have been used to attack his candidacy in this cycle and in 2008.
In response to claims that Romney became a Reagan fan only for political reasons, the site says: “Like Romney, when Reagan was involved in the private sector he largely stayed out of politics. The more involved Reagan became in politics, the more conservative his views became. For example, Reagan changed from being pro-choice to being pro-life.”
In another section, the site discusses how Romney made a similar conversion on abortion rights.
“There isn’t a campaign or candidate scenario that the Romney folks haven’t prepared for,” said Kevin Madden, who worked for the candidate four years ago and now advises the campaign. “This is a disciplined campaign that has prepared methodically to anticipate and respond to attacks.”
Beyond defense, Romney’s camp is readying shots to be fired at Perry. After Perry improved his performance in an Oct. 18 debate, Romney’s team pounced with a web video of less flattering Perry debate clips. The on-line ad ended with the question: “Ready to Lead?”
The campaign later pulled the web ad after CNN complained it used too much of their video without permission.
Romney’s campaign could also take advantage of Perry’s concession that he doesn’t perform well in debates to challenge his readiness to take on President Barack Obama. Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communication director, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg yesterday that the campaign will begin skipping debates to spend more time with voters.
The shift in campaign dynamics comes after recent polling shows Perry lagging behind Romney in every early caucus and primary contest, with support recorded in the single digits in New Hampshire and Florida, according to a survey conducted earlier this week by Time/CNN/ORC International.
Still, Romney aides see Perry as their most serious rival, if only because of his financial strength. Perry raised more than $17 million, as of Sept. 30, nearly half of the $32 million Romney has taken in. Perry had $15 million in the bank at the end of the third quarter, essentially even with Romney’s $14.6 million.
The race also has seen the formation of independent outside groups supportive of Perry’s and Romney’s presidential ambitions. The Romney-friendly group, Restore Our Future, reported raising $12.2 million through June 30, according to Federal Election Commission Records.
Perry supporters are coalescing around a committee named Make Us Great Again. Established too late to file an FEC report yet, it once sent a goal of raising $55 million. Jason Miller, a spokesman, said the figure appeared in an early planning document. He declined to say how much the committee has raised.
The outside organizations, which take unlimited donations, are a new entity in the presidential campaign arena and aren’t legally permitted to coordinate with the campaign. Some strategists expect them to air mostly attack ads, as such groups did during the 2010 congressional midterm elections.
Perry’s campaign, along with pushing the flip-flop charge, is developing a criticism of Romney that his 2008 competitors couldn’t use: that he’s the Republican version of Obama.
It’s an argument that could resonate in the Republican contest, in which Romney’s complex economic and tax proposal is getting less attention than the simpler and bolder proposal of rival Herman Cain’s ‘9-9-9’ tax proposal. Perry this week offered his own tax overhaul plan, calling for an optional 20 percent flat tax for individuals.
In an Oct. 10 video, Perry’s team morphed images of Obama and Romney signing their health care overhauls into law. An earlier video, titled “Romney & Obama: Carbon Copies,” closes with a clip of Obama indirectly praising energy policy Romney implemented in Massachusetts.
Romney has yet to be forced to respond to those criticisms since they’ve largely played out on the Internet. That could change soon, said Mackowiak.
“I kind of laugh when people write off Perry, saying there is no way he can win,” he said. “He’s going to be able to do paid media in at least all three of the early states.”
Mackowiak has seen how Perry can turn an election around.
A year before Texas’ 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary, Perry -- who took office in 2000 -- trailed Hutchison by more than 20 points.
The governor for months sought to undercut Hutchison by calling her a Washington insider. He also used a suggestion he made at a rally that Texas might consider seceding from the United States to rally Tea Party supporters around his re- election.
In an interview shortly before the primary, Hutchison said Perry’s hammering of her as a Washington insider helped sink her campaign.
“I didn’t think that people would buy that because I’ve been so effective for Texas,” Hutchison told the Associated Press on her campaign bus. “I didn’t think that anyone could turn my success in producing results for Texas into a negative.”
That same week, Perry’s campaign released records that allegedly proved a federal civil jury had found that Hutchison old law firm had defrauded investors in the 1990s. Hutchinson’s camp said the law firm was cleared of wrongdoing and called it a dirty trick.
On primary day, Perry defeated her by 20 percentage points.
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