You can always tell what a campaign thinks by whom it attacks.
At the Republican cluster-smackdown in Las Vegas on Tuesday night, the fists were flying. The evening started with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum pouncing on Herman Cain. Then the others piled on in a Cain-bang. This was natural, given that Mr. 999er had vaulted over all the other second-tier candidates into first place in recent polls. They bashed his 999 scheme on various fronts, and, no doubt, Cain, though he took the blows good-naturedly, left with more chinks than when he arrived.
But the most interesting assaults of the night came from Mitt Romney—and they were aimed at Rick Perry. Again and again, he manhandled the Texas governor, who is in single-digits in recent voter surveys. Every time, Perry toke a poke at Romney—on jobs in Massachusetts, on using a gardening firm that hired undocumented immigrants, on whatever—Romney was ready for him and slammed him in response much more effectively.
This showed a few things.
- The Perry campaign's opposition research operation was lame. Perry was not well-prepped. The material it handed Perry was weak. And he bobbled the oppo research he had been fed.
- You can't discount experience and professionalism. Romney was ready to rumble. He had the facts (or semi-facts) at his finger tips when he needed to defend himself or go on the offense. This was a sign he has a top-notched crew behind him and that he has grown into a better debater after campaigning for several years. Practice does work (except, it seems, for Perry, whose debate outings have gotten worse).
- Romney is worried about a Perry comeback. I didn't clock it, but it sure felt as if Romney spent more time with Perry in his sights than Cain. This would suggest that Team Romney considers Cain still the flavor of the nanosecond who will eventually flame out. And if Cain is sucking up the oxygen that would otherwise fuel another anti-Mitt candidate, that's fine by Romney. In all likelihood, Cain won't have the money, organization, or staying power to threaten Romney.
- Perry, though down and out (and downer and outer after this debate), could still revive—if only because he has the bucks to rebuild. He does have the money to wage a monumental ad campaign against Romney. While you can't buy a good debate performance or talent for the candidate, you can buy a good ad team and talented strategists. Perry has the resources to inconvenience Romney greatly. And when the voting starts, the anti-Romney support will have to settle somewhere. If Perry is at all viable at that point, Romney will have to worry.
Consequently, Romney aimed to kick the Texan while he was down. He did a pretty good job of it. It demonstrated that the former CEO has a strategy and the ability to execute it—which, so far, cannot be said of Perry.