Saturday, September 3, 2011

Should Mitt Romney Attack Rick Perry Now?

The next Republican primary debate is scheduled for this Wednesday. The debate is significant because it will be the first attended by Rick Perry. Voters in early primary states will begin to pay more attention, and they're eager to learn more about Perry, who leads in the polls.

We've written about why Perry will be attacked by Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney over the course of the primary. Bachmann has already begun to attack Perry for not being a genuine conservative. During the upcoming debate, it's very likely that Bachmann will attack Perry. After all, Perry is ahead in the Iowa Caucus polls. But should Romney attack Perry during the debate? How much effort should Romney expend on attacking Perry at this point in the campaign?

Romney's advisors, if they are unwise, will tell Romney that he must assault Perry. They will argue that because Rick Perry leads in national polls, Romney must attack the new frontrunner. If Romney's advisors are more clever, they will counsel Romney to remain above the fray, avoiding attacks against Perry for now. Why?

The fundamental structure of the race between Perry and Romney is that Perry is viewed as a more genuine conservative, and Romney is viewed as more electable. Both genuine conservatism and electability are important to primary voters. It's unclear which candidate will win if they remain in their current state. If the perception of Perry as a genuine conservative weakens, he will approach Romney on that variable--that is, they will be seen as somewhat more equally genuine in their conservatism. If they are tied on that factor, then Romney wins due to superior electability. Thus, Romney would like people to scrutinize Perry's record. He would like voters to harbor doubts about whether Perry is as conservative as claimed.

But Romney is not the best person to make such attacks. Since Romney still has the stigma of being a flip-flopper and an opportunist, he will be viewed as a hypocrite if he questions whether Perry is a genuine conservative. Bachmann, on the other hand, will not. Bachmann and Sarah Palin are basically the only two people on the planet who are not accused of meeting the definition of a RINO. Bachmann's conservative credentials are beyond doubt.

The conclusion is that Romney should allow Bachmann to do the work for him. She is in a better position to accuse Perry of being a RINO. It's also useful for Romney to avoid being the guy who "goes negative." When you attack another candidate--even successfully--you still lose some points, and you make enemies of people you'll need later on down the road. Going negative also makes a candidate look petty and unpresidential. Additionally, Perry would have more difficulty counter-attacking Bachmann, since Perry might reveal some disdain toward women. Perry probably doesn't take Bachmann very seriously, and if he is condescending toward her, it could make him look like a misogynist.

Would a "pacifist" strategy make Romney appear weak, as Tim Pawlenty was accused of being? Unlikely. Pawlenty was harmed by the fact that he had been attacking Romney when Romney wasn't there, but wouldn't attack Romney to his face. Romney has, so far, avoided making any real attacks against Perry. Romney should defend himself, but he will not appear weak by declining to initiate attacks against Perry.