Eight of the Republican candidates for president are gathering for the big debate tonight. I wrote yesterday over at Greg's place about strategy for the also-rans, so I might as well say something about the frontrunners.
If they asked me, what I'd tell both Rick Perry and Mitt Romney is the same thing: attack Barack Obama as often and as viciously as you like, but don't even mildly criticize any of the people up there on stage with you. Well, sure, it's safe to criticize Ron Paul on foreign policy and drugs. But other than that? Nope.
Debates as a whole are not nearly as important as they're made out to be, but in primary campaigns they're not necessarily irrelevant, either. This one is a bit more high-profile, and much of that attention will be focused on the new kid on the block, Rick Perry. What should Perry's goal be? Well, if the audience is party actors -- and it should be-- then his weaknesses with them are questions about electibility and competence. No one outside of the fringe who won't be satisfied with any plausible nominee thinks he's not a real conservative, and I don't think anyone is concerned that he's not tough enough. What does worry party actors, however, is whether he'll scare off moderates and whether he's prepared to be president (at least, that's what should worry them!). It's far too early to pivot to moderate positions. But he probably wants to do what he can to convince everyone that he's capable of sounding sane and smart. So for Perry, it's policy, and lots of it, as wonky as he can get it.
As for the Mittster: I see no reason for him to change his above-the-fray strategy any time soon. There's a very good chance that the also-rans will be gunning for Perry, after all, so why get in their way or make that story about himself? Keep to what's worked (more or less) so far: use the word "jobs" a million times, credential himself with conservatives as best as possible by slamming Barack Obama and other Democrats, talk about what a great hero Ronald Reagan was, and call it a night. If Perry trips up, great; if not, there are still many months to go, and plenty of time for Romney to do the attacking if he needs to. Meanwhile, he can do what he does best: look and act presidential.
So that's the advice I'd give them. I'll be watching and tweeting, and I'm planning to post a wrap-up over at Plum Line, so look for it there if you're interested.