Image: Former Massachusetts Governor Romney
Brian Frank  /  Reuters
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has decided that silence is the best strategy when it comes to Gov. Rick Perry's presidential candidacy.
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updated 8/22/2011 12:40:20 PM ET 2011-08-22T16:40:20
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Since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the Republican presidential race, he’s given plenty of ammunition to his political opponents — from suggesting that Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke's monetary policies were borderline-treasonous to questioning the science behind climate change.

The scrutiny has followed: Bush adviser Karl Rove called Perry's controversial comments on Bernanke unpresidential. Two of his Republican presidential opponents, from the center and the right, characterized his statements as extreme on national television. Even his successor at the Republican Governors Association, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, called Perry’s Bernanke remarks “incendiary,” and said he didn't add to the national debate.

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But Mitt Romney, who has the most to lose from Perry’s candidacy, has kept silent. He has barely even mentioned Perry by name since the Texas governor entered the race. It’s part of a hands-off strategy that underscores Romney’s limited options for diminishing Perry’s appeal with a deeply conservative Republican primary electorate.

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Romney has been playing the political equivalent of prevent defense throughout the campaign, avoiding engaging his Republican rivals and keeping his focus on President Obama. And for now, that strategy looks like it will continue, as the Romney campaign hopes Perry will self-destruct and that other opponents will aggressively go after him, allowing Romney to stay above the fray.

“Mitt Romney considers Rick Perry a friend and believes he will add a lot to the discussion during the primary,” said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. “But he is going to stay the course and keep his focus on President Obama’s failed economic policies. This country needs a president who understands how the economy works and has private-sector experience. That is why Mitt Romney is running.”

Video: Obama campaign adviser on Perry, Bachmann (on this page)

Romney is unlikely to engage the Texas governor much beyond drawing the contrast between their depth of experience in the private sector, at least for now. Romney’s mission is to present himself as the strongest challenger to Obama. Sniping at Perry doesn’t further that goal.

That strategy depends on the media and other presidential candidates doing the dirty work for him. And on this part, he’s had some early success. Rick Santorum compared Perry to liberal Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., for his red-meat criticism of Bernanke. Jon Huntsman took Perry to task for suggesting that climate change and evolution aren’t real. Both are exactly the kind of volatile issues that Romney would rather avoid in a GOP primary.

“In boxing, you don’t fight beneath your weight class,’’ said Florida lobbyist Brian Ballard, a member of Romney’s national leadership team. “Until Perry has been out there a couple of months and shown that he is a legitimate rival … I don’t think we’ll engage him much.’’

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Romney’s silent treatment largely hinges on Perry. Even as Perry has shaken up the GOP field, his controversial remarks have stirred fears among many Republicans that the governor could give a vulnerable Obama an opening in the general election. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sarah Palin have reemerged as long-shot possibilities to enter the race, more a sign of establishment dissatisfaction with the field than of their seriousness of mounting a late run. The ability of the nominee to defeat Obama is high on the minds of many Republican voters, said Alex Castellanos, an unaffiliated GOP strategist who worked with Romney in 2008.

“Right now, there’s no question he’s campaigning like a freight train,” Castellanos said. “But there is a question of whether he can keep the campaign on the tracks. So I think it makes sense to wait back and see.”

Romney doesn't want to talk about Perry

Romney has another motive: Directly engaging Perry would turn the campaign into a two-candidate race at the expense of Rep. Michele Bachmann. Right now, the Minnesota lawmaker is positioned to take many social conservative and evangelical votes away from Perry. If Bachmann wins the Iowa caucuses, it would seriously hurt Perry’s campaign.

“He’s going to be exposed to the harsh light of a presidential campaign, and I don’t think Romney or the other candidates have to do anything,’’ Ballard said.

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For now, Romney has been relying on voices in the Republican establishment who have raised questions about Perry’s electability in a general election. On ABC’s This Week Sunday, columnist George Will sounded skeptical about Perry's ability to win over independents and suburbanites — critical swing constituencies in a general election. Perry’s conservative bona fides appear solid, but the electability question is still out there.

If Bachmann fades, however, it would force Romney’s campaign to directly engage Perry on substantive policy differences, and there aren’t many clear lines of attack that would appeal to conservatives. Raising questions about the high percentage of Texans without health insurance, for instance, won’t resonate in a Republican primary.

“To a Washington liberal, that's the ultimate indictment," said Republican strategist Todd Harris, who advised Perry's opponent in the 2010 Texas governor's primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. “But in the context of the Republican primary, it's hardly the most effective hit against him.''

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Perry’s record does have blemishes in conservatives' eyes: He has supported pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he mandated that all of the state’s sixth-grade girls receive a vaccine to guard against the human papillomavirus virus. But neither of those issues were enough to sink him when he took on Hutchison in 2010, a race he won easily.

All of it puts Romney in a difficult place.

“Mitt Romney’s an arranged marriage [for Republican voters], but they’d marry Rick Perry for love,” said Republican consultant Rick Wilson. “There may be great things about the arranged marriage, but that’s not the whole thing.”

The article, "Romney Playing Hands-Off When It Comes to Rick Perry," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Obama campaign adviser on Perry, Bachmann

  1. Transcript of: Obama campaign adviser on Perry, Bachmann

    MS. GUTHRIE: All right, let's move on. Let's talk about the Republicans . As you know, Texas Governor Rick Perry had his first full week of campaigning, and he took some shots at the president. Let's take a look.

    GOV. PERRY: I think you want a president that is passionate about America , that's in, that's in love with America . I know what this country needs .

    REPORTER: Governor, you said you would be a president who loves America . Are you suggesting that the current president does not love America ?

    GOV. PERRY: No, you need to ask him. The president had the opportunity to serve his country , I'm sure at some time, and he made a decision that that wasn't what he wanted to do.

    MS. GUTHRIE: The president said this week he'd cut Rick Perry some slack. Will you? Was it appropriate for this candidate to suggest the president doesn't love his country .

    MR. GIBBS: Well, two things come to mind. Rick Perry is the governor who, two years ago, openly talked about whether or not Texas should leave the union. So I think for Rick Perry to, at one point, talk about secession from the union as early as -- or as far back as only 2009 , I think it's good that he's professed his love for this country . But I'll be honest with you, Savannah , I think the American people are tired of the politics where, if you and I don't agree on something, I question your love of country and your patriotism. That's not going to put anybody back to work. That's not going to make this country stronger, and it's quite frankly not what our country was founded on. We ought to be able to have honest, political debates in this country about very different visions and about very different ways in which we see this country moving without questioning people's patriotism and love for country .

    MS. GUTHRIE: Here's Michele Bachmann , another candidate, talking about how she thinks the White House views her.

    REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R-MN): I am one of the only candidates that this administration has been coming after. They fear my candidacy more than any other.

    MS. GUTHRIE: OK, Robert , is this the candidate the White House most fears?

    MR. GIBBS: Look, I think that Republicans are, are going to do battle in this. We saw it last week in Iowa where, where Michele Bachmann scored an important win in the Iowa Straw Poll . But I think the American people are going to get a chance, quite frankly , to kick the tires a little bit and look under the hood. I think when it comes to somebody like Governor Rick Perry , they're going to wonder why a place like Texas has one of the worst education systems. They're going to wonder why a guy who doesn't like the government, the largest employer in Texas is Fort Hood , an army base. Twenty-five billion dollars from the Economic Recovery Act went to Texas and helped Rick Perry balance his budget. They're going to wonder why, quite frankly , they're 47th in wages, just like they're going to wonder why Mitt Romney , when he was of Massachusetts was 47th in job creation.

    MS. GUTHRIE: I'm glad you brought up Mitt Romney . Last I checked, actually, Romney was the candidate White House advisers most feared. And there was an article in Politico recently that cited many Obama advisers saying the strategy against Romney was to portray him as, "weird." Is that your strategy?

    MR. GIBBS: No. I, I, I'm happy to say that I'm not quoted either off the record on background or on the record in that article.

    MS. GUTHRIE: You may not be, but several advisers were said to have said the word "weird" to describe Romney repeatedly.

    MR. GIBBS: And I don't -- I quite honestly don't know why -- if I was making the case to somebody about why you should vote for somebody and why you shouldn't vote for somebody else, I don't think weird would be in the top 50 words I'd use to describe that person. I don't think that's how the people of America process their political choices. I think there's plenty to talk about with Mitt Romney . Like I said, four years as governor of Massachusetts , and they finished 47th in job creation. And, quite frankly , had Hurricane Katrina not hit Louisiana , they'd have finished 48th. There's plenty of things to talk about with Mitt Romney . Just this week, Mitt Romney talked about overregulation in our economy. The overregulation he was talking about was the Wall Street reform that we passed in 2010 . He thinks Wall Street reform, not letting Wall Street write the rules for how we do business, that's the kind of regulation we have too much of in this country . I think people that watch their housing values basically decimated overnight don't think that we have too many people watching -- or had too many people watching what Wall Street was doing in 2006 and 2007 and 2008 . And that's, quite frankly , not what they want to go back to.

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