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Jewish World Review
Sept. 9, 2011
10 Elul, 5771
Perry gets bitten, bites back
SIMI VALLEY, Calif. - You know how to tell when you’re leading the pack? All the other dogs are trying to bite you on the butt.
Which is why Texas Gov. Rick Perry got his posterior attacked but good in a Republican debate Wednesday night. Anybody who bit him got bit back, however.
Though atop most polls for the Republican presidential nomination, Perry is not known to many Americans. Those who watched the debate, the first in which Perry has participated as a national candidate, saw a guy with square shoulders and a gunslinger squint, a man who likes to drop his “g’s” when “speakin’ ” his mind.
He sent one clear message: Nobody attacks Rick Perry - - not even with his own words.
“I feel like a piñata here,” Perry said at one point.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” he said at another.
And he didn’t. For a good part of the 90-minute debate sponsored by NBC and POLITICO, Perry not only answered the questions he was asked, but those he was not.
Asked why he used “provocative language” to attack Social Security, Perry replied: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country and get people workin’ again!”
What his answers sometimes lacked in logic was made up for in enthusiasm, and after some initial nervousness - - he gripped the sides of his podium as if he were hanging onto a life raft - - Perry settled down to his talking points.
Asked why, under his governorship, Texas has the lowest percentage of people in the nation with health insurance, Perry replied: “What [Texans] would like to see is the federal government get out of their business!”
When Perry and former front-runner Mitt Romney attacked each other with ready sets of statistics, NBC’s Brian Williams said, “Nice to see everybody came prepared.”
Of course they did. That’s what debates are about.
Debates, like much of modern politicking, are TV shows, and like many “off-the-cuff” shows, they require careful rehearsal. Candidates study thick briefing books with questions and answers, and their handlers, huddled in staff rooms off-camera, breathe deep sighs of relief when their candidates regurgitate the answers as prepped.
A former political handler, who has no candidate in the race this time but who showed up in the press tent anyway, told me: “It is so relaxing to watch a debate and not have to worry about how your candidate is going to screw up all your hard work.”
Which is not to say that candidates are unintelligent or mere puppets. They are merely aware that answers that are carefully checked, polled and focus-grouped are safer than glib, off-the-top-of-my-head answers.
An hour before the debate, the Perry campaign sent out an e-mail to reporters saying: “Members of the working press are encouraged to follow @PerryTruthTeam on Twitter and to visit www.rickperry.org for real-time updates concerning statements made during tonight’s Reagan Centennial GOP Candidates Debate in Simi Valley, Calif.”
Which meant that the Perry campaign was prepared not only to dispute what Perry’s opponents might say, but also to explain what Perry himself said.
Because of his meteoric rise in the polls and the fact this was his first debate as a presidential candidate, Perry was virtually guaranteed to be in the first or second paragraph of every news story.
Perry was like a debutante at a coming-out party. Would he dazzle or disappoint? Could he take it, and could he dish it out? That was the story.
When Newt Gingrich upbraided POLITICO’s John Harris for asking a provocative question, Gingrich said: “I’m frankly not interested in your effort to get Republicans fighting each other.”
But he was the only one.
How much voters actually care about debates is open to question. As I have written before, many people watch debates for the same reason many people watch the Indy 500: to see who crashes and burns.
What is not open to question (at least in my mind) is that performing well in a debate is not much like performing well as president.
Debates do not allow for thoughtful silence before answering a question. Nor do these potential presidents get to gather advisers around them before formulating a policy. They must speak instantly from the podium, hoping their answers convey strength, intelligence, warmth and electability. Especially electability.
You get only one chance to make a first impression. Perry made his Wednesday night.
Bite him, get bitten. He may not be everyone’s idea of a president, but he wanted to make sure he was nobody’s idea of a patsy.
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