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.
It's about "who people have been long-term," said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., earlier today. (I waved my don't-quote-people-with-a-bias rule for him.) "He was one of the earliest supporters of Reagan, one of four members of Congress to support Reagan when he ran in 1976. You contrast that with Rick Perry's support of Al Gore."
Say this: "Well, we have been making so many mistakes in this recession, and they have been happening because Washington doesn't understand monetary policy! And that's why it's so important that Republicans are consistent, and they nominate a candidate who is consistent. I don't see how you could support Al Gore for president, or you could say that Hillary Clinton's health care plan was constitutional, and then you could say, "Oh, I'm a conservative!' It doesn't make sense!"
Jon Huntsman. In every multidimensional campaign, there is a candidate who tries to rise above the fray and scold everyone else for being so partisan. In this race, Jon Huntsman can be that candidate. He's made some subtle noises about Mitt Romney's job record, and his campaign team has been less subtle, but what's his advantage in attacking Romney or Perry now? There isn't one—he needs to be the nice guy who makes New Hampshire moderates hear the theme music from The West Wing.
Say this: "Look, I'm not going to tear anybody down. I want to have a common-sense conversation with this country. That's what Americans want. That's what Americans deserve. Let's focus on what works for America, because this sort of squabbling—why, it's not good for anyone."
Rick Santorum. In 2007, Chris Dodd weakened Hillary Clinton by forcing her to answer, again and again, what she really thought about driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. A no-hope candidate, a fringe issue, and it didn't matter—it reshaped the race. Santorum, whose entire campaign has been about the inadequacies of other candidates and the unfairness of the media, can pull this off.
Say this: "I think Rick Perry is dead wrong when he talks about states' rights. I think it's dangerous. When you say you're going to leave marriage up to the states, you're saying to the secular movement, the anti-family movement, that you're not going to fight. You're not going to lead. That's defeatism. We can't afford that. I would add that it's the kind of thinking that led Rick Perry to support mandatory HPV vaccines in Texas, which just sent such a horrible message."
Newt Gingrich. What is he still doing here? He's not out to bring anyone down. He's not campaigning as hard or as frequently as anyone else. No one views him as a threat; for him to attack Perry would be pointless and jarring.
Say this: "I want you to think about something. Think about the question you have just asked. Now, that is just a devastating indictment of how liberal politicians and an elite media have lowered expectations in this country. The question is about what Rick Perry did as governor, but that's irrelevant. The real question should be about the bold, paradigm-shifting ideas that we can implement right now."
Herman Cain. Before Rick Perry captured the Tea Party vote from Bachmann, she captured it from Herman Cain. Anything that brings Perry down is theoretically good for him. He's never showed any interest in attacking fellow Republicans, though, so he'll have to work it into his script.
Say this: "Ask yourself a question. Who got us into this mess? Who did it? It was politicians! And I. Am Not. A politician. Never have been! Never wanted to be! I have not held office for most of my life. I'm a businessman! There are three points I would make about why we can't afford another politician in that job. No. 1 …"