WASHINGTON — The Republican race for the White House is about to accelerate dramatically, with a series of debates and events testing whether Rick Perry has staying power and Mitt Romney can keep focusing on the president instead of his GOP rivals.
Perry, the Texas governor, jolted the party last month by leaping to the top of several national polls within days of joining the race. Now, three scheduled debates in 16 days, the first on Wednesday in California, will show how well he can stand alongside his competitors and field a range of questions.
That opening debate “will be most critical” for Perry because “it will be his first time out,” said Terry Nelson, a campaign strategist who had worked for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, now out of the 2012 race.
Perry’s entrance has riveted political insiders and led to talk of how Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, should respond. It also siphoned off some of the buzz surrounding Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party favorite previously considered by many observers to be Romney’s chief rival.
For all that, party insiders say Perry can be a potent and resilient contender if he avoids major missteps. They say that polls and anecdotal evidence suggest he can appeal to a crucial swath of Republican activists: deeply conservative voters who place a somewhat greater emphasis on the economy, especially jobs, than on social matters, such as gay marriage.
Unlike Bachmann, a three-term House member, Perry can point to a record of robust job creation as governor. Unlike Romney, Perry espouses a long-held anti-Washington, anti-regulation philosophy that doesn’t leave hard-core conservatives wondering whether he’s a soul mate.
Romney did, however, adjust his Labor Day weekend schedule to add a tea party event in New Hampshire and an appearance with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. DeMint, a tea party favorite whose endorsement could be valuable, also is hosting Perry, Bachmann, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and others at a forum Monday in Columbia, S.C.
But Michael Dennehy, a GOP veteran of New Hampshire campaigns, said Romney’s team “is crazy not to respond” to Perry right away. “If they don’t,” Dennehy said, he’s going to be on top of them in no time.
For most politicians, that would signal a strong interest in running for president. Former Alaska Gov. Palin, the 2008 vice presidential nominee, has kept Republicans guessing for months. Many expect no decision from her until late September.
For now, most eyes are on Perry. If he survives the three debates largely unharmed, Romney and the others will have to decide when and how to start exploiting his faults. They might have several options.
Perry has called Social Security “a Ponzi scheme,” “a failure,” and perhaps unconstitutional. Journalists and some nonprofit groups are digging into his record of withholding various details of spending and other actions as governor, including the awarding of state contracts to financial supporters.
Strategists in all the campaigns are scrutinizing maps, potential attack ads and history. Perry’s potential appeal to tea party-leaning activists in Iowa and South Carolina, where his Southern heritage is a bonus, might serve him well.
Romney has focused his efforts mainly on New Hampshire, with fewer visits to Iowa and South Carolina. If Perry’s place atop the polls seems more real than ephemeral, September may force Romney to change plans, while Bachmann and others seek an opening before it’s too late.
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