More Mr. Nice Guy: Perry Struggles to Maintain a Positive Message

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A lot of comparisons have been drawn between George W. Bush and Rick Perry. Critics have said both Texas governors weren’t smart enough to be President and relied too heavily on a circle of smart advisers. But in Texas, pols say those criticisms are too simplistic and there are significant differences between the two, the first being that Bush was a rigidly disciplined politician whereas Perry is a genuine cowboy who often steps all over his own message.

Perry’s lack of discipline has already scarred his campaign. Fumbled debate answers on his HPV vaccination mandate and his immigration record have focused all the attention on his failures instead of his successes. He undercut the debut of his own tax plan by questioning President Obama’s birth certificate. The ensuing tempest distracted from his policy message. And this week, just as his campaign tried to focus on Perry’s positive side, he just couldn’t resist getting a little dig in at rival Mitt Romney. “Some think we can fix Washington with a pair of tweezers, nibbling around the edges if you will,” Perry said at a town hall meeting in Des Moines on Tuesday, alluding to Romney. “I happen to think we need to take a sledgehammer to it.”

Another distraction sprang up Wednesday when Herman Cain’s campaign accused Perry of leaking word of Cain’s sexual harassment cases to the press through an aide who once worked on Cain’s 2004 Senate bid. Though incredibly difficult to prove, if Perry is perceived as a villain in the scandal, it will do him no favors with Republican primary voters.

Perry can come off as a bully. And his own staff acknowledges that their problem doesn’t lie in some abiding love for Romney among the GOP electorate, but in showing voters that Perry is capable and likable enough to be President. Which is why Perry has slapped a smile on his face and presented his best aw-shucks face to voters for the last week. There’s little upside in going negative on Romney, but Perry just can’t seem to help himself.

After decades of winning rough and tumble Texas campaigns, the instinct to mix positive and negative messages seems to be ingrained in him. As the Texas Tribune noted in an analysis of his television commercials over 20 years, Perry has always mixed vinegar and honey to great effect. And his vinegar can pack a wallop. He beat incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower in 1990 by running an ad linking him to Jesse Jackson. In his 2010 primary against Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, he accused her of supporting the same bank bailout he supported. And in the general election he suggested Houston Mayor Bill White‘s policies led to the death of a police officer. Perry was so well known for his nasty ads that many in Texas were surprised when his first television ad this cycle was so, well, vanilla.

Perry can’t afford any more missteps in this campaign. He’s got to control his inner mean girl and find a way to connect with voters that’s not so terrifyingly silly that people think he’s drunk if he wants to stay on any remaining narrow path to the nomination. Perry’s challenge: After decades of blazing his own trail, can he find message discipline?