Can Rick Perry Beat Himself?

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It’s been clear for many moons now that Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison lacks the vision, the oomph and the time—too busy single-handedly turning back health-care reform and cap-and-trade, you know—to mount the kind of campaign that might topple a sitting governor in her own party. But with five weeks left before the primary election, there are reasons to wonder whether Gov. Perry just might be capable of doing the job himself.

On the heels of his clownish, abysmal performance in the first GOP debate—which allowed libertarian Debra Medina to turn herself into a serious contender for far-right votes—Perry is suffering from another self-inflicted wound. This one hit on Sunday, when The Dallas Morning News unleashed the single most embarrasing expose of the campaign so far. The headline spoke volumes: “Exclusive: Perry voter turnout project signs up felons.”

You gotta read it yourself. But the gist is this: DMN and others had already reported on the “Perry Home Headquarters” scheme, in which “recruiters” can earn hard cash for getting folks to pledge to vote for the governor. The pay-for-votes program sounded shady—though it’s legal—and the original reports generated some unwelcome attention and some dandy jokes about Perry having to pay people to organize for him at the grassroots. (One of the juiciest items was the Denton woman who’s now made $3,420, partly off her Twitter appeal: “HELP ME RAISE MONEY FOR MY NEXT CAR!!! COPY, PASTE, AND SIGN UP TO SUPPORT RICK PERRY!”)

One particularly busy fellow has racked up $34,060 signing up putative Perry voters. There are Obama supporters taking advantage of the program, too. But now it’s serious—especially for a governor who brays about law-and-order at every opportunity, and who’s focused his efforts on wooing the right-wing Republican base.

Among Perry’s Home Headquarters organizers, DMN turned up “an array of people with criminal convictions,” including Gema Gonzalez of El Paso, “convicted in 2004 of felony possession of between 5 and 50 pounds of marijuana,” and also with a misdemeanor assault charge on her record.”

The Perry people paid Gonzalez $13,440 to recruit voters in 2009. This “felons paid to organize for Perry” story has already proven irresistible, exploding across the Internets and local TV broadcasts. An Amarillo TV report last evening ended thusly: “If you would like to learn more about felons participating in Perry’s plan, you can visit the Dallas Morning News.”

If the Hutchison people don’t have a devastating black-and-white ad about this airing within the week, they should all be fired for derelicton of duty. The most delightful aspect of the story is hearing Mark Miner, Perry’s spokesman, defending the paid campaign felons thusly: “People in life make mistakes. It doesn’t mean they can’t get a second chance and work hard. That’s what these people are doing. They are out there trying to change their lives and make a difference.”

Now, isn’t that just the sweetest thing? Next thing you know, Perry will be advocating for more lenient sentencing and proposing new rehabilitation programs and higher-quality food for Texas prisons.

The Perry Home Headquarters deal not only threatens to undercut Perry’s tough-on-crime credentials: As DMN also reports, it had become an expensive distraction to the campaign even before these criminal records went public. It’s cost $360,000 so far, and “Campaign officials have also complained that they had to verify the names of registered voters submitted by the more than 300 people looking to get paid.”

Perry will get a chance to right his ship a bit on Friday, when the three GOP candidates debate again in Dallas. But the stakes are looking higher than anyone might have thought, just a few weeks ago.The governor still holds a solid lead in the polls, and time’s on his side—because it’s running out. But if Medina’s campaign keeps picking up steam, it’s looking very likely that Perry won’t be able to get to 50 percent on March 3 and avoid a costly runoff.

And there’s more potential danger on the horizon: Sarah Palin and her notoriously loose lips are coming to Texas to stump for him on Feb. 7. If Perry can’t completely derail himself by then, the Thrilla from Wasilla might be able to do the trick.