AUSTIN — A skirmish between Texas' two presidential candidates erupted ahead of tonight's Republican presidential debate after Rep. Ron Paul released ads spotlighting the role of Gov. Rick Perry, the GOP front-runner, in Al Gore's Texas campaign more than two decades ago.
The governor's campaign fired back by challenging Paul's loyalty to Ronald Reagan, a titan of American conservatism. Although Paul, a Houston-area congressman, portrayed himself in the ad as a Reagan loyalist, Perry's camp released a 1987 letter in which Paul resigned from the Republican Party and expressed dissatisfaction with Reagan's policies.
The exchange raises the prospect of a face-to-face confrontation between the Texans when the eight Republican candidates gather for a nationally televised debate at the Reagan library in Simi Valley, Calif. The debate, which will be broadcast live on MSNBC, begins at 7 p.m.
Perry, Texas' longest-serving governor, has a solid lead in the polls, making him a likely target for Republican rivals hoping to slow his momentum. The event will mark Perry's first appearance in a national debate since he entered the race Aug. 13.
Two polls released Tuesday show Perry maintaining his double-digit advantage over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the former front-runner, with Paul in third.
Perry had 38 percent, compared with 23 percent for Romney, in an NBC- Wall Street Journal poll. Paul had 9 percent, a point ahead of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. A Politico-George Washington University-Battleground poll showed Perry with 36 percent, Romney with 17 percent, and Paul and Bachmann with 10 percent.
Perry arrived in California on Tuesday after a two-day detour from the campaign trail to survey wildfire damage in Central Texas. He scrapped a Labor Day appearance at a South Carolina candidate forum after wildfires destroyed homes in Bastrop County and Austin-area subdivisions.
After a 15-minute helicopter tour of Austin's Steiner Ranch subdivision Tuesday morning, Perry sidestepped questions about the debate, telling reporters that his first priority is to ensure Texans' safety.
"We'll deal with that as it shows up," Perry said of the debate. "I'm substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of."
Paul's ad depicts Perry as "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader," recalling that Perry, then a Democratic legislator, was part of Gore's 1988 presidential campaign. Perry later said he mistakenly thought Gore was a conservative and cited the experience as a factor in his decision to switch parties in 1989.
Paul, who was one of four congressmen to support Reagan in his first presidential race, in 1976, embraced "Reagan's message of smaller government and lower taxes," the ad says. By contrast, the 60-second spot says, "Rick Perry helped lead Al Gore's campaign to undo the Reagan revolution, fighting to elect Al Gore president of the United States."
"Now America must decide who to trust," the ad says. "Al Gore's Texas cheerleader, or the one who stood with Reagan?"
After news reports of the ad purchase, Perry spokesman Mark Miner released a copy of a letter that Paul sent to Republican National Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf to resign from the party and return his membership card. In the letter, Paul said he had been a lifelong Republican who supported Reagan's candidacy in 1976 and again in 1980, but he told Fahrenkopf that he had become disillusioned.
"There is no credibility left for the Republican Party as a force to reduce the size of government," Paul said. "That is the message of the Reagan years."
Paul served as a Republican congressman from the late 1970s to mid-1980s before running for president as a Libertarian in 1988. He returned to Congress as a Republican in 1997. Paul also ran for president as a Republican in 2008.
"Rep. Paul's letter is a broadside attack on every element of President Reagan's record and philosophy. Paul thought President Reagan was so bad, he left the GOP," Miner said. "It will be interesting to hear Rep. Paul explain why Reagan drove him from the party at [the] debate on the grounds of the Reagan Library."