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The Republican presidential candidates debate again Thursday night — this time in Orlando, Fla.
Mitt Romney, who comes to Florida as the former front-runner, is eager to find a way to knock the newest candidate in the race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, off his perch as the new GOP leader.
The former Massachusetts governor has advantages he didn't have when he ran four years ago: He now has the experience of having run before. He has a tighter, more disciplined campaign. And Romney campaign strategist Russ Schriefer says this year's political environment is tailor-made for Romney's resume.
"The biggest issue of the day, which is jobs and the economy, is exactly what Gov. Romney is very good at," he says. "He's spent his career in the private sector. He understands how jobs are made. The times couldn't be better for someone like Gov. Romney to come in there and take charge."
For a while, Romney seemed in charge of the Republican field, with his sights fixed firmly on President Obama. But then Perry forced Romney to alter his strategy, says Sara Taylor, who was the political director in the Bush White House.
"The very fact that Rick Perry shows up out of nowhere and is at 30 percent of the vote says something about the front-runner, at least the former front-runner, Mitt Romney," she says. "It does say to me that Republicans in this cycle are really looking for an energized conservative to lead the race. I think that is a challenge for Romney, so he is doing exactly what you would expect him to do, pointing out those electability flaws that Rick Perry has."
Finding A Vulnerability
Romney's main attack on Perry isn't ideological — it's strategic. He has zeroed in on Perry's past statements about Social Security to argue that the Texas governor can't beat Obama.
"Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security," Romney has said.
The Perry campaign is fighting back with an attack on Romney's conservative credentials. On Wednesday, a Perry spokesman said Romney sounds like a Democrat trying to scare senior citizens.
Vin Weber, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, says this is the new dynamic of the Republican race.
"Now we're in a two-person race with Gov. Perry," he says. "That's going to mean that these two candidates inevitably have to clash with each other somewhat over the issues."
The clash isn't only about Social Security or job creation in Texas — the Romney campaign is attacking Perry on anything it can, hoping to raise doubts about Perry's readiness for the White House.
"I don't think that any one issue is going to be the fatal problem for Gov. Perry," Weber says. "I think it's a whole set of issues that lead people to be very nervous about him — questioning the direct election of senators, musing with the thought that Texas should secede from the Union. The question is: When Republican primary voters sort of string all of those positions together, do they see a real vulnerability or not?"
The Challenges Of 'Electability'
There are some polls that show the gap between Romney and Perry among Republican voters narrowing and others that show Romney doing a little better than Perry in a match-up with Obama, but not by enough yet to make Perry look unelectable.
"Electability is kind of the fool's gold of politics," Republican activist Bruce Keough says. "Nobody buys that the candidate that they really like and support is not electable."
Keough was the New Hampshire state chairman for Romney's campaign in 2008. This year, he decided not to support Romney but hasn't committed to another candidate.
"From a pragmatic perspective, Mitt Romney has a lot going for him. He clearly seems to be a better candidate this time around than he was in 2008. He's done a great job in the debates," Keough says. "On the other hand, many Republicans like myself are fearful that Mitt is more a manager than a transformational leader, and that he'll do a good job dealing with his inbox every day, but perhaps what the country really needs is someone who's going to really shake things up, and I think Rick Perry sends a lot of good vibes in that direction."
And that's the challenge for Romney — to convince Republican voters that those good vibes they feel from Perry now will lead to defeat next November.