The XX Factor

Instead of Bachmann, Tonight We Will Watch Ron Paul

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 17: Republican presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) arrives at the California Republican Party Convention on September 17, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.

It’s fair to say Michele Bachmann would need a miracle tonight to recover from her remarkably squandered opportunity on the HPV vaccine issue. Barring that, the entertainment value at the sixth GOP debate will have to be provided by the tension between Rick Perry and Ron Paul.

A Houston Chronicle blog has pointed out that no other candidate seems to “get under the skin” of Perry the way Paul does. During the last debate, Paul accused the Texas governor of raising taxes and growing the debt, and undercut Perry’s growth claims by saying many of the jobs Perry added in their state were government jobs. “I don’t want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something,” Paul added, twisting the knife. Meanwhile, in one ad, Paul’s campaign has called Perry “Al Gore’s Texas cheerleader,” recalling his Democratic past. The tough words – and photos like these, from another debate, in which Perry appears to be menacing Paul – have given rise to all sorts of speculation about just how much Perry must hate Paul, prompting Paul to explain that it’s not personal, that Perry is just a physical guy. “That’s just a characteristic of his, if he talked to you he’d probably do the same thing, he’d probably grab you,” Paul said at a recent breakfast with reporters, in a way that seemed calculated to add fuel to the fire. “It’s just a friendly punch in the chest.”

If Paul especially pisses Perry off, it’s little wonder. Ron Paul has made an art of being aggressive without seeming to be so. “I don’t want to annoy the governor,” the Texas congressman said at that media breakfast. (Yeah, right.) His rumpled, smiley appearance seems designed to disarm, as does his reputation. With his absolutist libertarian views and his grassroots operation, he is widely regarded as longer than a long shot. Mainstream republicans view him as “very flaky,” in the words of one political scientist. He gives slow, meandering answers at debates, creating the impression that he’s a harmless old eccentric. So when he jumps on Perry, his attacks seem like ambushes. During the last debate Perry grinned when Paul went after him. It was a grin of superiority; it said, Who the hell is this guy, and why does he think he can take me on? But Paul was a mosquito that would not be swatted away. Tonight, one imagines, he will be buzzing around Perry’s head again.