In his 10 years as governor, Perry participated in only five debates and refused to debate his Democratic opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial election. In contrast, Mitt Romney, who’s meeting Perry on the debate stage for the first time and has recently gone after “career politicians,” participated in 19 primary debates in the 2008 and 2012 elections combined.
Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director, admitted Wednesday that debates were not Perry’s “strongest venue” when compared to speeches, press conferences or retail politics.
“He’ll have a solid performance, continue the introduction to the American people, continue to talk about jobs and the economy, and that’s what we hope for,” Sullivan said on MSNBC Wednesday morning.
Perry’s first rounds of debating as governor came in 2002 against Democratic opponent and businessman Tony Sanchez. Perry attacked Sanchez, who made millions in the banking industry, for lacking “real-world experience” and accused him of moving drug money through his bank.
“Mr. Sanchez’s bank allowed millions of dollars to come in cash in suitcases,” Perry said in a 2002 debate.
In 2006, Perry participated in his largest debate to date, facing three opponents – Democrat Chris Bell, independent and former Austin Mayor Carole Keeton Strayhorn and entertainer Kinky Friedman, who donned a black cowboy hat and held an unlit cigar between his fingers throughout the debate.
Perry delivered a solid performance, with Bell emerging from the debate as Perry’s strongest opponent after Strayhorn and Friedman did little besides create comedic fodder for commentators. At one point, Perry rebuked Friedman for provocative racial statements he made, telling him, “Mr. Friedman, words matter, and if you’re going to be the governor of the greatest state in this nation, you bet you use those types of terms, and it’s going to deflect from being able to do the good things that need to occur.”
In the 2010 gubernatorial race, Perry and the Republican candidates – Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Tea Party activist Debra Medina – settled on two televised debates leading up to the March Republican primary. Perry faltered in the first debate, coming off as underprepared and was later characterized by Medina as a “jumpy, fidgety frat boy.” By the second debate, on Jan. 29, 2010, which marked Perry’s last time on the debate stage, Perry had sharpened his act and emerged from the debate unscathed.
However, when it was time for Perry to meet his Democratic opponent, Bill White, Perry refused to debate him unless he released his tax returns from his years in government, which White never agreed to do.
Wednesday evening Perry will face his largest group of opponents yet, with seven Republican contenders duking it out at the Reagan Presidential Library. But even if he emerges from tonight’s debate with his frontrunner status secure, he’ll have to confront his opponents again in a debate Monday, and in a third debate later in the month.