Pour a glass of 2 percent milk and moisten a towel for Rick Perry. In a couple of hours, he will take a stage in California, say the appropriate prayers to Ronald Reagan, and try to deflect questions and attacks from all the Republican candidates who now trail him in the polls.
We need to be gentle, because Perry's team wants us to know that debates are very, very hard for him. "Debates are not the governor's preferred method of communicating and not his strong suit," said a Perry spokesman to National Journal. Politico previewed the debate by noting "questions about his basic smarts"—questions, conveniently enough, given flesh by a popular Politico story.
This is mostly great news for Perry. Lowering everyone's expectations for a debate is one of the basic tools of politics, up there with smiling politely and learning how to beg for money. Taking punches when you're the front-runner? That's tougher, but it's what Perry's done in three conservative gubernatorial races.
Talk to Republican strategists and you get two big theories. The Reagan Library debate tonight might not matter at all; Perry will stay in command, and his job will become just a bit tougher for the CNN/Tea Party Express debate next week. Or the debate could give some lucky candidate a shot at Perry, and turn the death's head of the easily-distracted media back over to him or her. Here, based on the recommendations of people with no candidate to shill for, is what each candidate could do to pull him- or herself back up to the top of the heap.
Mitt Romney. He's got the easiest job of all. In 2007, bashing Mitt Romney was the price for entry in the GOP primary. Even when he wasn't in the lead, he was John McCain's punching bag. Mike Huckabee said that Romney looked like the "guy who fired you." But he's not the front-runner right now, so tonight he can hang back and avoid the blows. When he's prompted to go after Perry, he can blow kisses and slyly signal that the compliments work just as well for him.
Say this: "Look, Gov. Perry has done a great job in Texas. He's been a successful governor. In my economic plan, which you can download right now for the Kindle, you'll find that the states with right-to-work laws, the states that aren't held hostage by the demands of unions, are responsible for most of the job growth right now. And if I'm fortunate enough to be elected president, I Will. Not. Rest until there are right-to-work laws in all 50 states. Conservative businessmen like me, they realize that nothing could be better for the economy."
Michele Bachmann. She's lost so much already, and she has so much more to lose. Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll a few hours after Perry jumped into the race. He surged into first; she slid back into third or fourth place, struggling to stay above the Ron Paul Line. She spent three years becoming the "Queen of the Tea Party" (the Weekly Standard's words, not mine!) and he seized power in a bloodless coup. Republicans agree that Bachmann can't "pull a Pawlenty" and punt if she gets a chance to attack Romney. They don't really worry that she will; when Pawlenty went after her in Iowa, she endured, then crushed him. But she needs a big moment to wake up fund-raisers and donors who've already started to move on.
Say this: "The sad truth of it is that this president has failed. He passed a trillion-dollar stimulus bill, which failed. And while I was taking the lead in Congress, leading the opposition to that trillion-dollar bill, there were some governors who took that money. They dodged the tough choices. Rick, you took that money, and you can't make Barack Obama a one-term president if you were going along with one of his worst ideas, which I led the fight against."
Ron Paul. Who thought Ron Paul would spend the lead-up to this debate attacking the front-runner? He's bought an ad to inform Republicans that Rick Perry endorsed Al Gore—Al Gore!—in 1988. Perry's campaign kicked back at Paul, reminding Republicans that the congressman left the party in 1987, saying Ronald Reagan had failed the movement. There has been no back-down. Paul's family wants to keep the heat on Perry.