Perry’s mixed week left mud on his boots

Ford O'Connell Chairman, CivicForumPAC
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Early Monday morning, CNN released a national survey. The results show that among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, Texas Governor Rick Perry is perceived as “the candidate with the best chance to beat President Barack Obama in 2012.” Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Perry’s closest competitor, is a distant second. For Perry, who is looking to break away from the rest of the GOP pack, this was certainly welcome news.

Between Monday and Tuesday, Perry picked up key endorsements from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval. Both Jindal and Sandoval are pragmatic chief executives who can help Perry make inroads with establishment Republicans and possibly even Hispanics (Sandoval).

Unfortunately for Perry, his primary opponents took full advantage of the spotlight during Monday night’s CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate in Tampa, Florida, to focus on some of the muddier aspects of Perry’s record. While none of these issues were a surprise to folks who have followed Perry’s career in Texas, it seemed like the candidate hadn’t fully fleshed out his response to these pointed attacks.

On the issue of illegal immigration, Perry has an uphill battle with the GOP primary electorate, particularly on his support for in-state tuition for some illegal immigrants. Perry won’t be able to charm his way out of this one. He’ll need to better define his positions and effectively sell them to both tea party and establishment Republicans. If he doesn’t, he’ll hurt himself right out of the gate in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. It won’t matter that Perry’s positions on immigration could benefit him in a general election if he doesn’t get past these early primary contests.

The HPV vaccine issue opens up Perry to criticism on two fronts. Perry may be able to tamp down the concerns of social conservatives and tea partiers about government intrusion into family issues by repeating the mea culpa he outlined during Monday’s debate. The risk for Perry is that he won’t be able to shake the perception that the HPV vaccine’s manufacturer, Merck, influenced his decision to mandate the vaccine. He’ll need a much stronger rebuttal than: “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.”

The two GOP debates that Perry has participated in so far have made it clear that Perry isn’t a polished debater. Sure Perry has great “command presence” at the podium, but he will need to seriously improve his debating tactics and come with more substance if he wants to win the GOP nomination. I find myself in agreement with CNN’s David Gergen, who noted: “[Perry] talks a lot of Texas. He’s going to need to move beyond Texas. He’s clearly going to have to beef himself up on the international side.”

Perry appeals to Republicans and GOP-leaning independents precisely because he takes bold, decisive stands and doesn’t appear to waver from his positions, even when his positions are unfavorable to them. But Perry has some obstacles to overcome. If he can overcome them, he could very well be the party’s nominee. If he can’t, Mitt Romney will likely represent the party next November.

Ford O’Connell is the chairman of CivicForumPAC, editor of The Political Quarterback, and an advisor to conservative candidates.