WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney's campaign says they're in no rush to knock Rick Perry down a few notches, but Romney himself on Tuesday began the war to define his top rival for the Republican presidential nomination with two words: career politician.
Romney, in his speech Tuesday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in San Antonio, took aim at Perry without mentioning his rival, in the context of whether Obama is responsible for the country's economic slump.
"I am a conservative businessman. I spent most of my life outside of politics, dealing with real problems in the real economy," Romney said. "Career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out!"
It was the beginning of what one Romney adviser acknowledged will be a "death by a thousand cuts" strategy. The former Massachusetts governor will seek to continue his disciplined march toward the nomination, focused primarily on attacking and comparing himself to President Obama. But he -- and more significantly, his aides and advisers -- will be working to take Perry's legs out from underneath him.
They don't think the Texas governor -- who has been in office since 2000 -- can be defeated or sidelined by any one thing. They will instead draw from Perry's extensive record in office to highlight the most negative aspects of his public profile.
The attack labels -- and the ideas and actions behind them -- are familiar to many in the press, but will be new to many primary voters: crony capitalist, back-room dealer, soft on immigration, not as committed to limited government as he claims. The attacks are already being previewed in press reports emanating out of Romney headquarters.
What is less clear is the pace at which Romney will litigate this campaign, and whether he can avoid being taken completely off his game. Conversations with those in Romney's orbit gave some clues as to how they'll proceed.
The early stages of their strategy will feature occasional jabs by Romney -- the "career politician" label was thrown to the press in the first few lines of prepared remarks sent out by the campaign Tuesday morning -- with a focus on behind-the-scenes conversations with reporters to shape coverage of Perry. But there will be a good deal of waiting also, because the Romney campaign believes that the current third-place candidate, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), will be forced to go on the offensive against Perry, and soon.
For the moment, however, the Bachmann campaign is waiting to see if the third-term congresswoman -- who showed herself a very able and fierce fighter in Iowa against former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- can remain an innocent bystander. The Bachmann camp would love to watch Romney and Perry slug it out, allowing their candidate to stay above the fray.
Romney world thinks she won't have such a luxury, given the way Perry has overtaken her in the polls and is attracting support from Republicans dissatisfied with Romney.
"I think given her financial situation she can't wait that long," the Romney adviser said.
Jamie Burnett, who was Romney's political director in New Hampshire in 2008 but is unaffiliated this cycle, said that "every day that goes by there is less oxygen for [Bachmann] in this primary field."
"[Perry's] stealing a lot of her oxygen. It's quickly becoming a two-person race," Burnett told HuffPost.
Romney advisers also want to give Perry plenty of rope with which to hang himself in the three debates coming in September. The Romney camp believes that Perry's penchant for talking off the cuff could cause a meltdown, so they see no need to rush toward a confrontation.
"We went through Hurricane Palin and Hurricane Huckabee and Hurricane Trump," the Romney adviser said, referring to the bright light celebrity names that stoked interest earlier this year: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and businessman Donald Trump.
Referring to Perry, the adviser said: "This is just one more hurricane, but I think we're at the end of hurricane season."
The first debate, next Wednesday in California, followed by another in Florida five days later, will do much to determine how the Romney camp proceeds toward the next phase of their strategy. If Perry falls apart under the bright lights, much of their work will be done for them. And even if he does well, that may be the last straw that pulls a reluctant Bachmann out of a survival strategy and into a desperate attack on Perry.
Another factor will be the next University of New Hampshire/WMUR poll, Burnett said. If it shows Perry having closed the gap on Romney in New Hampshire, that could accelerate Romney's efforts to go after Perry.
Romney is still comfortably ahead of Perry in surveys of Granite State voters. Because this is the early primary state that Romney is focused on winning, his advantage there is more consequential for the moment than national polls showing Perry far ahead of Romney. That is why the Romney campaign is staying cool in the face of Perry's meteoric entry into the race, though some said they detected a whiff of panic in the first signs that Romney and his campaign are going after Perry.
As Romney does begin to engage with Perry, one question is whether Romney can avoid a full-scale slug-fest before he wants it, which would take his focus off Obama. Much of this depends on how Perry responds to thrusts like Romney's "career politician" jab. Does he hit back, or just breezily ignore Romney's shots and play the role of frontrunner? If Romney's first attempts at bloodying Perry don't work, and the Texan continues his surge in the polls, Romney will be the one forced to throw his playbook aside and more openly go after Perry.
Perry will launch attacks of his own against Romney, but the Texas governor is the one undergoing a full-scale presidential vetting for the first time. Much of the race, at this juncture, comes down to how he holds up under this process.
"If Perry can perform, I think he'll win. I think that's the question. Can he?" said one Republican consultant and operative who is supporting Perry. "I think he can do it."
But Perry has withdrawn from interaction with the press after his initial head-first dive into the pool on the first weekend after announcing his candidacy. On that weekend, he walked around the grounds of the Iowa State Fair, toying with reporters when asked whether he was carrying a gun and making comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that created rounds of negative press.
The debates will force Perry -- who did not take part in any debates in his 2010 reelection campaign -- to prove his mettle.
"These next three debates are either going to make or break Perry as a national candidate," said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican consultant.
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