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Perry calls Trump’s campaign ‘a cancer on conservatism’

    Republican presidential candidate, real estate mogul Donald Trump, speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa on Saturday.

WASHINGTON » How do you deal with a bully like Donald Trump?

To Rick Perry, the best response is to stomp on his head and drive his face into the dirt — and maybe improve your own political profile in the process.

Perry, the first Republican presidential candidate to blast Trump’s comments on immigrants, ramped up his attacks in a Wednesday speech in Washington, calling Trump an existential threat to the Republican Party and pitching himself as a leader who’ll embolden and empower Americans with conservative principles.

“Donald Trump’s candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded,” the former Texas governor said. “It cannot be pacified or ignored, for it will destroy a set of principles that has lifted more people out of poverty than any force in the history of the civilized world — the cause of conservatism.”

Perry called Trump’s campaign “a barking carnival act” built on stereotypes and divisive rhetoric, peddling the poison of resentment as a false cure for real problems.”

“He has piqued the interest of some Republican voters who have legitimate concerns about a porous border and broken immigration system,” said Perry. “But instead of offering those voters leadership or solutions, he has offered fear and sound bites. This cannot stand.”

Trump’s campaign declined to comment on the speech. But Perry’s latest condemnation is the rhetorical peak of weeks of sniping between the two candidates on TV and Twitter.

When Trump said most Latino immigrants were rapists and criminals, Perry denounced him for falsely demeaning them, though the former Texas governor erroneously claimed last July that undocumented immigrants committed more than 3,000 murders in six years.

Trump then criticized Perry’s handling of last year’s border surge and said “he should be ashamed of himself.” Trump will visit the border Thursday afternoon in Laredo, Texas, where he’ll meet with federal and state law enforcement officers.

Perry then urged Trump to drop out of the race, calling him a blight on the party who spews “a toxic mix of demagoguery and nonsense.” Never one to pass on a fight,Trump said that the glasses Perry took to wearing in recent years weren’t fooling anyone into thinking he was smart.

As Perry tries to rebrand himself as an experienced leader with thoughtful solutions — and bolster his poll numbers to make the first GOP primary debate in two weeks — there is a question of whether his crusade against Trumpism will defeat the beast or feed it.

Trump has climbed the polls during his battle with Perry while the governor hovers around the cutoff line for the first debate, which will be based on an average of recent national polls. A recent Washington Post/ABC poll has Trump leading the GOP field with 24 percent, while Perry was at 4 percent.

Though Perry has gained attention and praise for taking on Trump, some political strategists say he risks overdoing it.

Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney, said Perry should “sit back, relax and don’t overreact.”

“For the same reason that professional boxers won’t step into the ring with unorthodox fighters, professional candidates shouldn’t engage with unorthodox candidates,” said Fehrnstrom. “Let this moment pass.”

Fehrnstrom said the approach taken by Sen. Ted Cruz, who has refused to criticize Trump, is “the right balance.”

“He pays tribute to issues that Donald Trump raises,” he said.

Others say Perry should ride the Trump wave as far as he can — for his sake and the party’s. Even if Trump’s candidacy is dismissible, his impact on the political discussion isn’t.

“It’s a huge advantage to him because people are talking about him and he’s in the conversation with Trump,” said Dave Carney, who initially led Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Whether the governor is doing it or not, the media is so fascinated with Trump.”

Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration official who introduced Perry for Wednesday’s speech, praised him for “drawing attention to Donald Trump,” as if the mogul wasn’t doing enough of that himself.

“Let (Trump) be onstage in the debate, but let’s isolate him by denouncing forcefully what he’s saying, because it’s insulting and it’s baseless,” Aguilar said during a policy panel before Perry’s speech.

Perry and other candidates who are at the back of the GOP pack are aiming to survive and hoping that Trump fades, as celebrity candidates often do. Early polls are based on little more than name recognition, and fringe candidates who own headlines in July are often out of the race by January.

“There’s at least a segment of the audience that likes the entertainment value (Trump) brings and the audacity he shows,” said Bruce Buchanan, professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. “But it won’t work in the long run.”

Perry agreed, insisting he’d be hitting the ground running in early primary states instead of worrying about polls or the debate.

“I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about standing up for what I believe in,” Perry said. “America may have a dalliance with this individual, but once they look at the record, if they are true conservatives, that dalliance will not last long.”

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