By most accounts, Rick Perry has become the Republican front-runner less than a month after he entered the race. He not only leads by wide margins in national polls, besting former leader Mitt Romney by 15 percent in a survey released yesterday; he appears to hold the edge in many of the early primary states that will decide the nomination long before the rest of the country has any say. In the latest polls from Iowa, South Carolina, and even Nevada, Perry tops the field.
One problem: Most GOP voters have yet to see Rick Perry in action. So far, he's ducked the media and stuck to speeches before small, friendly crowds. That will change tonight when he takes part in his first presidential debate. He missed his first chance to share the stage with his opponents when he ducked out of a Monday forum in South Carolina to return to Texas to tend to the spreading wildfires. But that natural disaster won't keep Perry away from the debate in California this evening.
Perry has tended to avoid direct engagement with his opponents at all costs. Even though this is his 11th year governing the state, Perry has been in only four debates (political novice Herman Cain is headed into his fourth presidential debate tonight). In the sole debate during his 2006 re-election bid, Perry shared a crowded stage with three others running for governor. He only had to make himself appear less crazy than cigar twirling Kinky Friedman. Last year, he debated his Republican primary opponents twice, and his pantomime of cowboy swagger dinged Perry's image when directly compared to a real opponent, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. He still secured his party's nomination, but when it came time for the general election, Perry broke with two decades of precedent and refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Bill White.
It was an odd choice. Perry, a k a Governor Goodhair, is known for being charming. To put it mildly, White isn't exactly the most striking or dynamic figure. No, what must have scared Perry away from sharing a debate stage with White was his opponents' knowledge of policy. And as Politico's Molly Ball reported after interviewing a number of Perry's former opponents, Perry is weakest when the debate turns to specifics:
Those who have beaten Perry at the debate game have not tried to match him in the folksiness department. They have done their homework so they know his record as well as he does and can precisely dismantle the grand facts he cites
It's clear that the other candidates are willing to challenge Perry -- Ron Paul has a major ad buy attacking his fellow Texan -- so he won't be able to sit back and rest solely on generalities.