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The stage where Gov. Rick Perry gathered with supporters on election night in 2010.
Ben Sklar/Getty Images
If the wildfires in his home state don't change his plans, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is scheduled to make his national debut Wednesday in his first debate with seven fellow candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
As the new GOP front-runner, Perry no doubt has been preparing for the probable lines of attack his opponents may launch during the televised event at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif. — especially those from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who led national polls until Perry joined the race, and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose rapid rise Perry halted.
But if his past debate performances in Texas are any indication, the three-term governor's Republican adversaries may have difficulty wounding him.
"I don't really recall any great specifics of his debate performances — I just recall him always exuding confidence," says Royal Masset, former political director of the Texas Republican Party and self-described "old-time" GOP political consultant.
"I think he's going to play it the exact same way," Masset says. "He has that Churchillian ability to look happy even when things aren't that great."
Going in with a growing lead in national polls, Perry will simply have to get across his broad message — that while the nation was bleeding jobs, Texas was creating them under his watch, says Texas political consultant Bill Miller.
Perry canceled an appearance Monday with other candidates in South Carolina to return to Texas to monitor the response to the state's deadly wildfires. And he has indicated that his participation in Wednesday night's debate also hinges on progress in fighting the fires.
Assuming he does show, Miller suggests that Perry "play a little against type" for a national audience.
"There are some broad messages that are pretty easy for him to defend," Miller says. "He also needs to be less sort of culturally Texas in his speech, and avoid common mistakes of mispronunciation and misstating facts."
"They'll find he doesn't really back down," says Miller. "He'll jack up the whole energy level of the debate."
Perry's opponents could try different lines of attack. In a recent online ad, for instance, Ron Paul criticizes Perry as "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader," for serving as chairman of Gore's 1988 presidential campaign in Texas, back when Perry himself was a Democrat serving in the state House.
But two years later, Perry had switched parties. Those who have watched him since say his opponents would be hard-pressed to characterize him as anything but a conservative Republican.
A more fruitful inroad for Perry's GOP opponents could come from an examination of Perry's past debates.
Perhaps most illuminating is his 2010 gubernatorial primary debate with fellow Republicans, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina, given that it features an intraparty contest.
They took on Perry for his early endorsement of mandatory vaccinations of teenage girls for a type of sexually transmitted infection known as the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
They criticized him for his now-shelved proposal to build a $175 billion road-and-train thoroughfare from Mexico through the state.
And they admonished him for a culture of what his opponents describe as "crony capitalism" that has enriched the governor during his time in office, as well as his supporters.
Some of Perry's more controversial positions, including his assertions that Social Security is a "Ponzi scheme" and that climate change science is in dispute, may also be raised Wednesday. Those issues may be more suited, however, to a general election debate.
Perry now refers to his support of mandatory vaccines against the sexually transmitted HPV as "a mistake."
But in 2007, he issued an executive order that made Texas the first state to require, with some exceptions, HPV vaccinations for girls entering the sixth grade.
At the time, Perry characterized his action in a USA Today piece as consistent with his tenure as a "pro-life governor," and a "rare opportunity to act." HPV has been shown to cause cancer, but the vaccine is anathema to many social conservatives who see it as encouraging premarital sex.
The state Legislature overturned Perry's order, and he declined to veto their action. The law in Texas, and more than a dozen other states, now simply requires that information on the vaccine be made available to the public.
"I was 100 percent behind what he was doing," says Masset, the Texas operative. "But it's such a complicated issue — it's hard to explain one way or the other."
Others, including Miller, say Perry should be able to simply say he misread the situation, and tacitly agreed to the policy change.
Perry in 2002 proposed a massive network of state roads and rail to respond to increased traffic out of Mexico after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA.
Part of the estimated 4,000-mile network was a 600-mile, 1,200-foot wide stretch from Mexico to the north Texas border designed to accommodate a highway and rail tracks. It was conceived as a toll road.
It turned into Perry's most significant crisis. Farmers, environmentalists and others organized to decry the plan, which would have required the government taking of massive amounts of private property (estimates put the amount of land needed to be purchased or acquired for the project at 584,000 acres) through eminent domain. They also criticized Perry for contracting with a Spanish consortium to build and operate part of the network.
The debate is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. ET. It's being broadcast on MSNBC and webcast by MSNBC and Politico. Because it's being held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif., the official Twitter hashtag is #reagandebate.
Affected residents turned out in droves at a series of town halls, some arriving in tractors with signs that read: "Remember the Alamo? This is our Alamo!"
"There was a huge uprising here," Miller says. "It was civil war, and part of his own community — rural Texans — were against it." Around the same time, Perry, who grew up on a farm, vetoed an eminent domain bill that would have made it more difficult for government to take land.
The corridor plan, which the Texas Legislature canceled in 2011, was a good idea "in theory," Masset says. But the massive proposal works against the governor's themes of limited government, he says, and could give opponents an opportunity to characterize him as a "big Daddy State person."
Perry also accepted more than $12.1 billion in federal stimulus money, while criticizing the program. His debate explanation in 2010: "We sent billions of dollars to Washington, D.C. When it comes back without strings attached, you betcha we're gonna take it."
Perry has been in the governor's office for 11 years. That makes him not only the longest-serving governor in Texas history, but also the longest-serving governor in the nation.
Hutchison accused Perry of presiding over a system of "cronyism creeping into Austin."
Some conservatives have taken up that argument. Senior political columnist Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner, in a stinging recent column whose headline referred to Perry as a "cowboy corporatist," listed tax breaks and state buyouts for businesses he favored, from Merck (the maker of the HPV vaccine) to a poultry producer and Perry donor.
The influential free-marketers at the Club for Growth have decried as "a form of corporate welfare" the Texas Enterprise Fund, which Perry created, for awarding more than $439 million to 89 companies.
Miller says he envisions Perry's opponents characterizing him as a professional politician who made a lot of money in office, and doled out a lot of state dough.
"I see it as a trifecta," he says.
Cronyism isn't anything new in Texas, or in other states, Masset says.
"In Texas, it's almost taken for granted, almost seen as necessary to get anything done," he says. Perry's influence, he says, has outrun previous governors because he's simply served so long.
"You always hear of Texas being a weak governor state, and generally that's because the governor has never appointed more than half the people on any commission," Masset says.
Now? "Gov. Perry has appointed every single commissioner — and that's 5 or 6,000 people," he says. "It's his people. It's his government."
Whether his opponents will be able to weaken Perry by trotting out his Texas legacy that goes beyond jobs, however, remains a large question.
"I don't think they're going to draw blood," Masset says.
Miller predicts that Perry will go into his first presidential debate nervous and knowing he'll be a target.
"It's all fair game," Miller says, "but they have to be careful that they don't look to be picking on him, but picking apart his record to slow his rapid ascendancy."