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(CNN) - What struck me most about Rick Perry’s verbal assault on Mitt Romney at the CNN Western Republican Debate in Las Vegas was its contrast to the way Ronald Reagan used to conduct himself during debates.
The late president would never have gone after a fellow Republican in such a direct, personal way. If Reagan were going to attack a fellow Republican on something like the alleged hiring of illegal immigrants for lawn service, he would have had his aides handle it. He would have personally stayed away from the charge.
In all the debates back in the 1980s that I remember covering, Reagan almost always took the high road. He usually had a smile and clever line.
He had people who would handle the direct attacks in the spin room or elsewhere, the so-called dirty work of politics.
That’s because Reagan wanted to look presidential. He wanted to be seen as being above the usual partisan bickering.
In contrast, Perry, clearly eager to show he was regaining some political momentum, really went on the offensive against Romney. But in the process, he seemed less than presidential. He seemed more like a regular politician trying to score some points.
That might work in state or local politics, but not necessarily in a presidential contest.
I thought Romney handled the bitter exchange over his hiring of a lawn service that employed illegal workers rather well with two notable exceptions. He shouldn’t have appealed to Anderson Cooper, the moderator, to quiet Perry. That did not seem all that presidential, either. It made him look a bit weak. There are other techniques he could have used to rebut Perry.
And in defending his record on the controversial lawn service company, Romney blundered when he said: “I'm running for office, for Pete's sake. I can't have illegals.” He, of course, shouldn’t be hiring illegals at any time, not just when he’s running for office.
I suspect the Romney-Perry battle is only just beginning. They both have millions of dollars available for lots of very negative advertising. Get ready for that next phase.
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