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SALT LAKE CITY -- Before Texas Gov. Rick Perry threw his name into the ring of Republican candidates looking to oust the incumbent president, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney enjoyed the front-runner spotlight, leading all candidates in national polling.
But then Perry became the ubiquitous conservative candidate, surging to a quick lead in recent polling. However, many have wondered how long Perry's surge last. Will he be the de facto Republican presidential nominee to challenge the Democrats in November? Is he a legitimate competitor in a presidential race?
A look into the past shows early polling is almost always no indication of who will become a party's nominee. As the previous
presidential election cycle was heating up, former New York City mayor Rudy Guiliani was the clear favorite, with an average lead of 10 points over his closest competitor. However, the eventual Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, trailed by an average of more than 16 points nearly four months before any primary votes had been cast.
Even President Barack Obama trailed by more than 20 points to former Sen. Hilary Clinton in the polls leading up to the first presidential primaries and caucuses.
But with the current political winds shifting dramatically in Perry's favor, New York Times writer David Brooks contends Perry is a legitimate candidate to occupy the White House, which is why Romney should be taking the Texas governor's campaign more serious.
"If the 2008 electorate were going to vote in the 2012 primaries, then Romney could handle Perry. But that electorate no longer exists," Brooks wrote. "It's more likely that sooner or later Romney is going to have to prove his own toughness by taking Perry on directly."
If the 2008 electorate were going to vote in the 2012 primaries, then Romney could handle Perry. But that electorate no longer exists. It's more likely that sooner or later Romney is going to have to prove his own toughness by taking Perry on directly.
Brooks points to the recent shift to the right in American voters as a key factor for why Romney has a serious fight on his hands against Perry. Citing a recent Pew Research Poll as an example of the shift, Brooks said the Democrats' advantage over voters is gone, which gives Perry a major advantage, writing, "(Perry) has a simple and fashionable message: I will bring government under control."
Nevertheless, Brooks points out areas of Perry's campaign for Romney to expose, which could potentially weaken the Texas governor's accelerating campaign and public support. The first suggestion Brooks makes is to attack Perry on his history as a Democrat; a man who was the Texas chairman to the Al Gore presidential campaign of 1988.
Time Magazine writer Michael Crowley agreed with Brooks saying: "Romney should miss no opportunity to remind people that Rick Perry was a Democrat. He began his career as one, and spent six full years fighting for the enemy as a state representative. … (In) 1987 Perry voted for a $5.7 billion tax hike opposed by most Republicans."
Perry, who has actively campaigned against raising taxes, would have to explain a monstrous tax hike he previously supported.
Crowley continued: "What could be more appalling to conservative primary voters? Possibly not even ‘ObamneyCare,' I'd wager. Yes, Perry was one of those conservative Democrats common to Texas … and while Perry has built a strong conservative record since his partisan defection, a party switch is itself a kind of flip-flop that could make voters think twice."
But attacking Perry on his Democratic roots could also have implications for Romney, whose landmark health care plan closely resembles "ObamaCare" and his campaign rhetoric have some flip-flopping inconsistencies.
Romney should miss no opportunity to remind people that Rick Perry was a Democrat. He began his career as one, and spent six full years fighting for the enemy as a state representative.
However, Brooks offers another suggestion to help Romney combat Perry's surge: shift the message of the campaign. Brooks maintains the voters need to identify with Romney if he is to have a chance come primary season.
"If voters think Nancy Pelosi is the biggest threat to their children's prosperity, they will hire Perry," Brooks writes. "If they think competition from Chinese and Indian workers is the biggest threat, they will hire Romney. He's more credible as someone who can manage economic problems, build human capital and nurture an innovation-based global economy."
The campaign tactic Brooks suggests is probably Romney's best line of defense going against Perry. The economy is struggling and it needs help, and help quickly. Romney has aggressively voiced his success in business and creating jobs while on the campaign trail, which could come as a major advantage in such a vulnerable economic state.
If Romney can convince voters he can turn the economy around, in addition to reducing the size of government, he has a stronger rebuttal against Perry. Additionally, shifting the campaign message, without necessarily pinning down Perry as the "Democratic" candidate, keeps Romney out of the mud and allows him to focus on his sole target: President Obama.
Romney has enough monetary support to take on Perry, especially in television advertisements, but in the meantime, Romney must take Perry's campaign seriously and not wait to see if it eventually fizzles out.