Image: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, talk during a Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas, Oct. 18, 2011.
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updated 10/24/2011 9:25:47 AM ET 2011-10-24T13:25:47

The Republican presidential race has become a no-holds-barred contest over character.

With the pace of the GOP contest quickening, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are resorting to tough language online and while campaigning to undermine each other's credibility and values.

"It's time for you to tell the truth," Perry said during last week's Republican debate, all but calling the former Massachusetts governor a liar.

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The Texas governor also is trying to cast Romney as someone who lacks a core set of beliefs, highlighting Romney's shifts on health care and other issues in hopes of dislodging him from atop the field.

Romney is portraying Perry as a dimwitted novice who coddles illegal immigrants and takes liberties with his economic record.

"The great challenges we have we will overcome," Romney said in South Dakota recently, "if we have leaders that will tell the truth, and live with integrity, and who, by virtue of their life experience, know how to lead." It was a suggestion that Perry didn't fit that bill.

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The amped-up rhetoric signals a more aggressive phase in the race and sets the tone in the 10 weeks before the nominating contest begins in Iowa in early January. It also illuminates campaign strategies and previews likely attack ads sure to surface on television soon.

It's raised concerns among some Republicans, who fear a drawn out, personal battle between their top contenders will only help President Barack Obama's chances of winning next year.

"I don't like that, I'm not for that. I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican, he didn't think it was smart to attack each other and I don't either," oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens told Fox News last week after Romney and Perry got in each other's faces during the Las Vegas debate.

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Despite their oft-stated reverence for Reagan, the two leading Republican hopefuls are ignoring Reagan's so-called 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."

Romney, seen as the Republican to beat, has identified Perry as his top rival, even with businessman Herman Cain polling well and lower-tier contenders such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum drawing positive buzz in debates.

Only Perry has been able to compete with Romney in fundraising and the two are expected to have enough resources for a protracted national campaign if necessary. Both have the backing of powerful special political action committees that can raise unlimited funds to run attack ads of their own.

Romney's campaign has started web site, www.careerpolitician.com , that jabs at Perry's record in Texas. The Romney team posted a video on the site after Perry's stronger-than-usual debate performance last week, stringing together several clips from past debates in which Perry stammered and looked confused.

Video: Perry talks hunting, 'love affair' with guns (on this page)

"Ready to lead?" the ad asked.

The Romney campaign pulled the video after CNN complained it used too much of the network's material without permission. Still, the ad signaled a chief Romney argument going forward — Perry isn't up to the job of being president.

Also last week, Romney's campaign released another web video trying to debunk Perry's claim that Texas leads the nation in job creation, which is the central premise of Perry's candidacy. The video asserts that unemployment in the state has gone up under Perry and that most of the new jobs created were in state government or went to illegal immigrants.

The ad includes a clip of Perry saying he disagrees with those figures.

"Disagree? It's a fact," the ad states — essentially calling Perry a liar.

Perry has used Romney's own record on illegal immigration to suggest that he's disingenuous.

During the debate, Perry pointed out that Romney had used a lawn company at his Massachusetts home that employed illegal immigrants. Perry's campaign followed up with a web vide, arguing that Romney was a hypocrite on illegal immigration, health care and his own political ambition.

Video: Decision 2012: Who’s a plausible candidate? (on this page)

"You can't lead a nation by misleading the people," the video concludes.

Perry made the same point at a campaign event, describing himself as a conservative "authentically, and not by convenience."

He added: "You won't hear any shape-shifting nuance from me."

Perry got an assist this past week from the Obama campaign and its allies, who have singled out Romney.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina echoed the flip-flopper theme, telling reporters Romney will "say and stand for anything to get elected, even if it means forgetting the positions he's previously taken."

Priorities USA Action, a super PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, released a web video that needles Romney for his wealth and suggesting he believes millionaires like him should pay a lower tax rate than middle-class Americans.

The ad drew a rebuke from Romney spokeswoman Gail Gitcho, who called it "another pathetic attempt by President Obama's political machine to distract attention from their nonexistent record on creating jobs."

Democrats have their own history of nasty primaries, most recently between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008. The two reconciled after months of personal attacks, and Clinton now serves as secretary of state.

Ken Khachigian, a Republican strategist and former Reagan White House staffer, said he finds the character attacks between Perry and Romney "unpleasant to watch" but said such primary dust-ups were inevitable.

"Party politics, like all politics, is rough and tumble," Khachigian said. "When it's all over, the desire to defeat Obama will be so huge they'll all be sipping tea together."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Decision 2012: Who’s a plausible candidate?

  1. Closed captioning of: Decision 2012: Who’s a plausible candidate?

    >>> we're back with our roundtable discussion. joining me, nbc news chief foreign affairs correspondent and host of " andrea mitchell reports," andrea herself. former chairman and ceo of general electric , jack welch . former democratic congressman harold ford . and columnist for t"the new york times" david brooks . welcome to all you. jack, great to have you here for the first time. let's talk about foreign policy , andrea mitchell . the president in his weekly radio address tried to frame the events of this week in a way that really went to his leadership moment for him. this is what he said.

    >> this week, we had two powerful reminders of how we've renewed american leadership in the world. i was proud to nouns that, as promised, the rest of our troops in iraq will come home by the end of this year. and in libya, the death of moammar gadhafi shows that our role in protecting the libyan people and helping them break free from a tyrant, was the right thing to do.

    >> is this a big moment for him? and does it last?

    >> it's a big moment. whether it lasts is another question. i don't think he's vulnerable on libya. because that could dissolve into tribal warfare, civil war , we've seen human rights abuses already. so there's no civil society . there's no justice system . but, they -- it's very hard to blame barack obama for that. people were upset at him for a relatively inexpensive military engagement and leading from behind turned out to be really smart. on iraq , i think there are pitfalls ahead. he is correct that this was george bush 's timetable to get out. this was an agreement signed with the iraqis. he can be criticized for failing to negotiate an extension, which the military did want. but, at the same time, if everything goes well in iraq , i think this is a victory. and it's certainly appealing to the democratic base. the problem will be if civil war erupts. then, we cannot re-engage. we can't resupply and get back in.

    >> jack welch , as you well know, presidents can really affect foreign policy . those are where the leadership moments are made. he can't do a whole lot about the economy right now, but he can certainly make a case about leadership around the world. but does it carry on into a campaign?

    >> oh, of course it does. i mean, if he has success in this iraq pullback, it will be very helpful to him. but i do think presidents can do something about economies. and i don't buy that they can only do foreign policy .

    >> this isn't lasting, david , though, if you think about what's really driving voters' concerns. we saw this with the first president bush . you know, he won in iraq , at that point, and that's not what the campaign was about.

    >> i guess i still mostly think that. but not entirely. you know the middle east just doesn't go away. i had a briefing from a senior military person saying iran is really no-holds-barred on their iranian nuclear programs. there's still a very aggressive regime. so i happen to think there will be some crisis before the next year, some talk that the nuclear program will end up producing something by the next election. i happen to think foreign policy will be much bigger than we think it is.

    >> it's interesting, harold ford , the allusion i made to in the question to secretary clinton, about republicans and their positioning on foreign policy . there's an isolationist streak in the republican party right now, and frank ply in these debates there have been moments where republicans have not come up very strong on acumen. it seems to a democratic president to say, i'm the foreign policy leader here.

    >> he has been not only more effective, more assertive, and more forceful i think than even his chief primary opponent and now secretary of state thought he would be. he's been more assertive, and auk sesself, than democrats and republicans in the house and senate thought he would be. i differ with david just a bit. i think all those successes were bragged about during the campaign and rightfully so. at the end of the day the plight of the mesh family in the midwest and southwest and northeast and across the country at the end of the day will determine whether or not he's re-elected. these issues, don't get me wrong, solidify him as commander in chief. but americans are looking for an economic commander in chief, as well.

    >> so let's talk about the republican debate and the debate this week. another big one. and here's just a flavor of how personal and nasty it got.

    >> rick, i don't think i've ever hired an illegal in my life. and so i'm afraid -- i'm looking forward to finding your facts on that. because that just doesn't --

    >> i'll tell you what the facts are, you had to work --

    >> i'm speak speaking.

    >> the up in --

    >> i'm speaking. you get 30 seconds -- this is the way the rules work here. i get 60 seconds .

    >> no but the american people want the truth.

    >> and you get 30 seconds to respond.

    >> and they want to hear you say that you knew that you had illegals --

    >> would you please wait --

    >> working.

    >> are you going to keep talking ? are you going to let me finish with what i had to say? look, rick, --

    >> i thought republicans followed the rules. this is a tough couple of debates for rick. and i understand that, and so you're going to get -- you're going to get testy.

    >> just watching i start to perspire. jack, what have we learned after these debates? you think republican primary voters are closer to making up their minds?

    >> well, i think they're moving towards a candidate. but these squabbles that occur during these debates, they occurred, in the democratic debates before, now when obama and clinton were going at it. these things will be lost in the rounds. i agree with harold , that how the american family is doing next fall will determine a lot more than that squabble that went on there.

    >> but at the same time, 20 million people have watched these debates already. it's an extraordinary number. and i think that people are so intensely focused, precisely for the reasons that jack and harold have been talking about. the income disparities, and the suffering, the economic pain that people are feeling. and they're looking for leadership. and the question then becomes, which of these republicans in that kind of squabbling match are showing that kind of leadership.

    >> i think the debates have been consequential because they've shown what we've got here. it's not a primary process. the primary process you have several candidates and they go after each other. we don't have that. we have one plausible candidate and a bunch of other guys who are prepping him for the obama onslaught. basically they attack him. we thought perry was plausible. so far turned out not to be. so they're attacking him, getting him ready for what obama is going to unleash on him. i'm grading it on how well is he doing here. i give him like a b-minus. there are two things he has to really get ready for. one is the flip-flopper charge. the second that he's the male version of the step ford wives. and he hasn't really solved either of those two problems.

    >> there was this week magazine had an interesting cover that caught our attention. we'll put it on the screen here. it's still not in love. and it's about mitt romney 's search for love on the right, among conservatives. so herman cain , a lot of talk about the economy and taxes, and of course, jack welch , we rely on you principally for insightful commentary on twitter. and this is what you wrote after herman cain was on "meet the press," and thank god you were watching. you wrote, watching herman cain on "meet the press," his no b.s. clarity is so refreshing. is he legitimate anti- romney ?

    >> well, he's created a spark here, no question. he has had a big idea . this debate system, or the primary issue, as you call it, is really a search for an idea. and he's captured the imagination. whether you like 9-9-9 or whether 9-9-9 has holes in it, 9-9-9 brought people to, we want simplification. we want change. we don't want tweaking around the edges. and i think he did that.

    >> a lot can be learned from what mr. welch is saying and what cain has done. first of all, i thought he did an excellent job, cain did, last week. the president can learn something and romney can, as well. whomever the nominee will be. simple, big and bold. president obama was like that in '08 and people are wanting to see a result between now and '12. two, there's so much positive happening out there, and mr. welch and i were in the back room talking about it, and the president's got to figure out how he begins to -- to, from a posture standpoint project that confidence, project the strength of the country, and hopefully we find ourselves people wanting to employ people more, stimulating prosperity and growth in other parts of the economy.

    >> you know, david --

    >> harold , keep pushing that.

    >> i took it from you.

    >> david , this is an interesting poll, and it shows whom the american people blame for economic problems in the country. 78% blame wall street . 87% blame the federal government . one of the big questions that you've posed about president obama is can he run a conventionally liberal campaign, a populous campaign, tax the rich more, and prevail?

    >> no. you know, the most important public statistic in our lifetime is they ask people, do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time? through the '50s, '60s, '70s, it was like 80% trusted government. then that drops, vietnam, watergate, gets down to like 20% under bush. now it's down at a historic low point of 15%. so if you're a democrat, the party of government, you can't run, i'm government, he's the market. you cannot run that campaign. you have to confuse that debate the way bill clinton did, the way obama did in '08 by being post-partisan. i see obama being the liberal fighter over the past couple of months and they may help with the fund-raising but i do not see that winning.

    >> one of the things that david was just pointing out about mitt romney . it's barack obama compared to what. and if mitt romney does become the nominee, phil rucker in "the new york times" is saying his problem is he's not connecting, still not connecting. he has lay-up shots and doesn't hit, you know, can't take advantage of them. he is, you know, boardroom cool versus living room warm. according to "the new york times." and that's a pretty good take on him. and i think that the problem that romney still has, with all of this training in the debates is that he still doesn't get the detailed --

    >> can i raise the big question? jack, let me start with you, which is, at this point, does the president have to level with the american people and say, look, the conversation in washington stopped about jobs, about what government can do to somehow stimulate economic growth . we've got to focus on other things. maybe it's tax reform . but we can't do it at the moment. you disagreed with that earlier, saying he can do something about the economy.

    >> i think he can do a lot about the economy. he could look at drilling for oil . he can -- by himself can drive that posture. he could put a moratorium on regulation, and so we've got unemployment below a certain level. he could do it, and he could most importantly change the posture. everything we do in this administration is more punitive than it is incentivized. let me give you a perfect example. let's take the jobs bill. they put in there, section 371. that is an ability to sue for unemployed people, who are not looking for a job, to sue for $300,000, for example, if they hire andrea who has a job, and don't hire me, unemployed. it's crazy. they give a $4,000 incentive to hire an unemployed person, then they give a $300,000 penalty if you happen to discriminate against an unemployed person. come on. you've got to get positive framework.

    >> harold ford , none other than steve jobs in the new biology than walter isaacson who writes about him meeting with obama , this is how the toughington post reported it, telling obama you're headed for a one-term presidency insisting that the administration needed to be more business friendly. this is still the overhang they have to deal with.

    >> look, their posture has been really bad. their policies have not been nearly as bad. if you think about at the beginning of the administration, people thought he would pass cart check. there was great angst in the retail community. he didn't do it. it didn't get done. cars, banks, financial institutions , he's been great. the epa regulations he backed off. but the posture and the language and the rhetoric has been just too overheated. to mr. welch 's point you can't incentivize the type of things that they incentivize in this bill. two, you have huge balance sheets on the part of corporate america . they're making money . you've got to incentivize them to use that money to stimulate job creation . there's a way to do it if you have some certainty around regulations and taxes. and you've got 1.2 trillion maybe sitting over seas. allowing that money to come back.

    >> occupy wall street , how does he take that --

    >> he's the president. he's the president. we democrats can't criticize republicans for catering to the tea party . and not say to our democratic party , you've got to look beyond occupy wall street .

    >> you know, it's a short-term versus long-term problem. as herman cain understands, people are not only worried i'm going to lose my job tomorrow, what about my kids' economy? and he understands, i think obama understands you've got to do the long-term things. get the fundamental solutions right, which is what herman cain understands with the big plan. so if he was emphasizing tax cuts , simpson bowles , that would be a very different story, okay, we're suffering. but my kids will be okay. that's what people want to know.

    >> jack?

    >> simpson - bowles , dropping simpson - bowles was a massive mistake. i mean just a fundamental mistake. he could have coalesced around that. he could have got -- we'd be discussing elements of simpson - bowles today, and you could argue that for a much better --

    >> and had he done that he would have avoided what turned out to be the biggest single downturn in consumer confidence and confidence in the government, which was the debt ceiling debate.

    >> is it also a challenge for republicans , and david you and i have talked about this before, you know, you can't tax cut your way to prosperity. you've seen tax policy can't affect economic growth either way , yet we have income inequality in this country. you have frustration. you have anxiety. what is the republican platform do to actually deal with that to create a new economy?

    >> think jobs. unleash the economy. if you look at 1979 and '80, substitute japan for china. substitute soft america for malaise. you've got the same situation. we need a leadership model here that takes us to a new level, shows the greatness of our country, and takes on china the way we took on japan, and win the game.

    >> all right. let's go quickly.

    >> i still think that's unsufficient. we had jobs in 2000 . jobs in the '90s, we still had wage stagnation.

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