As a child in Paint Creek, Texas, Rick Perry was not great at clod fights, the rural Texas version of snowball fights that involve throwing clumps of dirt at one another. “He couldn’t hit the side of a barn,” his fellow Boy Scout Riley Couch told the San Antonio Express-News in 2001. But, “Tricky Ricky,” as he was often called in his hometown (that and “Pretty Ricky”), was a master practical jokester. His fellow Scouts suspected it was Perry who left a dead snake in their clubhouse. And on a troop trip to Dallas, Perry squeezed toothpaste into sleeping boys’ hair.
Fast forward 50 years to CNN’s Las Vegas GOP presidential debate Tuesday night and Perry, the impish trickster, has reemerged. For the last four debates, everyone has been waiting for Perry to show a pulse. On Tuesday night he did. Perry launched a double broadside against front runner Mitt Romney. With assists from former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, he attacked Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts and went after Romney’s employment of undocumented immigrants to tend to his gardens. Romney claimed he didn’t know at the time and that he promptly fired the crew when he found out. A flustered Romney stuttered: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake, I can’t have illegals.” Which kind of begs the question, if he weren’t running for office, might he have kept them on?
Perry drew blood and reasserted himself on the debate stage. But he also came off somewhat desperate: grasping for words, sputtering in his outrage. It’s not the smartest strategy.
Perry’s problem isn’t taking down Romney. Already 70-75% of GOP voters don’t like Romney. The fact that Perry lost 22 points last week, Cain gained 20 and Romney picked up zero shows that there’s a considerable group of Republicans primary voters out there who just aren’t convinced that Romney is their guy. Perry doesn’t need to scare them: they’re already looking for any viable non-Romney option. “Rick Perry entered the race in first place not saying a single word about Mitt Romney because folks are searching for the anti-Mitt,” says Matthew Dowd, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. “And Perry dropped down not because of Mitt but because of his performance problems and that’s what he needs to focus on.”
By making such personal attacks against Romney, Perry broke Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican. Personal attacks usually come at the end of a campaign (though, if New Hampshire and Iowa move to early December, one could argue we’re already in the final sprint) when a candidate is within striking distance and he or she needs an extra edge. Perry needs to define himself first. He needs to show he’s got gravitas, can deliver a presidential speech and that he’s a feasible alternative to Romney. If his image is only a scary, angry guy, that’s as hobbling as the wallflower performance he’s put on for the last eight weeks. Perry can’t win through being a trickster; he’ll have to beat Romney in a fair clod fight or not at all.