Gov. Rick Perry and his aides in Texas have spent hours studying old footage and records of Mitt Romney, stretching back nearly two decades, building a list of issues on which they believe Romney has waffled, seeking to brand him as inauthentic.
Romney's team is honing plans for an attack on Perry's readiness to be president. They intend to press Perry on foreign policy, demand that he produce a national jobs plan and relentlessly pursue the case that Perry is out of step with his party on how to address illegal immigration. (Justifying a Texas law that lets some children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at public colleges, he said that if you oppose it, "I don't think you have a heart." Romney has countered, saying: "I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain.")
The lines of argument are hardening as the party's leading presidential candidates dig in for what Republicans believe could be a long and bitter fight for the nomination, extending into the spring as new rules allow contenders to pick up delegates even in states where they lose.
After three debates that have shaped the race for now into a Perry-Romney contest but also highlighted the imperfections and political vulnerabilities of both men, the campaign is now entering a new phase. The candidates have a week to make their pitch to donors before the third quarter closes on Sept. 30, a critical point that could further narrow the field.
For Perry, the glow of his arrival to the race has given way to the daily rigors of campaigning, which his advisers say has been more difficult than he expected. He has generated enthusiasm among many grassroots conservatives and posted strong showings in many early polls. But his shaky debate performance Thursday underscored concerns among establishment Republicans about his electability and his skills as a candidate on a national stage -- and the difficulty he has had planting serious doubts about Romney.
The early political strategies of both candidates are becoming more clear, with Perry waging a campaign in all of the early-voting states -- the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, along with the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina -- and Romney concentrating on New Hampshire, but looking at Iowa as a place to engage his rival.