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Perry defends controversial debate remarks at Southern California fundraiser

CORONA DEL MAR, Calif. ó Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s no-retreat on Social Security in the latest Republican president debate was a strategic campaign decision based on the belief that GOP voters are hungry for red-meat rhetoric and a candidate who won’t back down from strong positions. |By Wayne Slater and Christy Hoppe, The Dallas Morning News

CORONA DEL MAR, Calif. ó Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s no-retreat on Social Security in the latest Republican president debate was a strategic campaign decision based on the belief that GOP voters are hungry for red-meat rhetoric and a candidate who won’t back down from strong positions.

Perry entered the debate ready to punch back at any challenge and defend even his most provocative ideas ó from calling the retirement program a “monstrous lie” and a Ponzi scheme to questioning evolution and climate change. That stance plays to his instincts and strengths as a campaigner but also to a political environment in which voters are anxious and angry.

“People want a leader who is passionate,” campaign spokesman Mark Miner said at a rally Thursday in Republican-rich Orange County.

Perry’s combative and uncompromising approach sets up a stark contrast with chief rival Mitt Romney, whose campaign believes a less pugnacious approach better emphasizes his electability.

The clash in styles presents GOP voters with a decision about the direction of the party as it seeks to oust Barack Obama. But it also gives Romney an opening to criticize Perry as too dangerous to the party’s prospects at a time when Obama appears politically vulnerable.

Perry arrived to a jubilant reception of about 1,000 people at a rally Thursday, the morning after the Republican debate, on the seven-acre grounds of a gardening and landscaping center.

Herbert Gavin, owner of the center, said Perry’s confrontational style is exactly what Republican voters are looking for this year.

“I’m for the Republican Party, and I’m very interested in Perry,” he said. “I was a Mitt supporter the last go around. But I’m looking for more. I’m looking to shake it up. And Rick is shaking it up.”

Orange County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh said the turnout at Thursday’s event reflects enthusiasm for Perry and a desire among GOP voters for a fighter who will take back the White House and fix the nation’s ailing economy.

“We need a provocative conversation,” he said, echoing a line Perry used in Wednesday night’s debate. “We’re not going to solve any of our problems by negotiating around the edges. And if it takes bold and provocative conversation to get the job done, I applaud Mr. Perry for going straight-on on the issues.”

Perry’s debut has raised questions over the political wisdom of attacking Social Security, a program that is popular even with conservative Republicans, and his insistent adherence to views on evolution, climate change and other issues that could alienate moderate voters in a general election.

But successful campaigns incorporate the best qualities of a candidate rather than remaking them in a way that seems contrived and artificial. Miner said that’s what the Perry campaign has done by showcasing his aggressive campaign style.
“This is who he is,” Miner said in an interview as Perry plunged into the Southern California crowd Thursday, shaking hands and signing autographs.

“People want someone who will stand up for them. People don’t want someone wishy-washy who takes both positions on issues,” Miner said, an indirect reference to Romney’s history of changing some positions on major issues. “They want a leader who is firm in what they believe in and talks about issues with passion and vigor.”

Some Republicans, though, question whether Perry is taking that too far. Former George W. Bush political strategist Karl Rove, for a second straight day, said Wednesday that Perry was inviting voters to question his fitness for office.

“Look, 60 million Americans depend upon Social Security,” Rove told Fox News. “When somebody says it’s a failure and we are going to turn it over to the states, those people start to say … ‘How’s this going to affect me?’”

Among Orange County Republicans at Thursday’s Perry rally was Betty Krusiewicz of Coto de Caza. She said she’s sold on Perry because “he can communicate that conviction about what’s truthful versus what’s politically correct.”

Many Orange County conservatives would agree with her assessment of Romney as “presidential fluff,” and she said that while she admires Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann for her staunch conservatism, she would not support her for president.

“I will not vote for a woman,” she said. “I believe a man should lead this country.”

Political experts and longtime Perry observers saw the combative tone as a carefully considered strategy to woo Republican primary voters, especially conservative tea party activists motivated by angry and blunt talk.

“There was nothing extemporaneous,” said Republican strategist Bill Miller. “He was practiced and what you saw was his strategic plan of how he wants to present himself.”

He noted that Perry called Obama “an abject liar” in dismissing his assessment that the Texas border was safe. And when Perry suggested Wednesday night that candidates should not recoil from provocative language, “he was saying, ‘Everyone else has been pulling the wool over your eyes; I’m the guy who’s going to tell you the way it really is.’ “

Democratic strategist Jason Stanford, who directed Chris Bell’s failed gubernatorial campaign against Perry in 2006, said an angry GOP electorate that wants government out of their lives ó up to and including Social Security ó “will carry him to the nomination.”

The debate performance and Perry’s message are not intended for a mainstream audience, but for tea party conservatives who will be instrumental in picking the GOP nominee.

“Why moderate when there are no moderates?” Stanford said. “The national environment right now lends itself to a Republican Party that is as bad as it wants to be.”

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Perry has assessed the mood of the GOP primary electorate better than Romney. But he cautioned that “if there are enough gaffes and enough polls showing that Perry can’t beat Obama, it’s possible Republicans will return to Romney.”

If Perry does win the nomination, Sabato said, he’ll have to “retool his campaign in a major way” to win moderate general election voters.

But even if he does, the contrast in styles would be clear.

As longtime political watcher Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said, a Perry-Obama showdown would amount to the “whippet-thin, fastidious, ultra-urbane, somehow-detached Siamese cat that is Barack Obama versus the muscular Marlboro man Rottweiler that is Rick Perry.”

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