Is Rick Perry Finished?

Plagued by mistakes and behind in the polls, Perry tries to revive his presidential campaign.
by Published on

“A month ago, all we heard about was Rick Perry and now, he’s off the map. He had a worse September than the Red Sox.” —David Letterman

It’s funny because it’s true. On Aug. 13, the Boston Red Sox had the best record in the American League and were favorites to reach the World Series. On that same day, Rick Perry announced his presidential candidacy. He rocketed to the top of nearly every poll and soon became the favorite to win the Republican nomination.

Then came September. The Red Sox completed one of the most stunning late-season collapses in baseball history by surrendering a ninth-inning lead to last-place Baltimore on the season’s final night and missed the playoffs.

Bad as that was, Perry might have had a worse month. (That’s really saying something: Boston lost 20 of its last 27 games.)

You know the litany of Perry errors. There were his unsteady debate performances—the last of which included an attack on Mitt Romney and an answer on Pakistan policy that were so nonsensical it seemed Perry was coming off a four-day bender. Conservatives are hammering Perry for granting in-state college tuition to children of undocumented immigrants. Then there were his face-palm, off-the-cuff remarks, including saying that Warren Buffett(!) was out of touch with the private sector and that Perry would be open to sending troops into Mexico. And, of course, there was the ranch controversy.

Eat your heart out, Terry Francona.

The popular theory among some political pundits is that Perry is down, but not out—that he can still right his campaign, overtake Romney and win the nomination. And the Perry-comeback narrative has some merit. My colleague Forrest Wilder recently laid out several compelling reasons why Perry can still win this thing. He does have the money, time, talent and opportunity to do it. The clown show that is the GOP field remains wide open. So I won’t count anyone out, Perry included. (A smooth performance at Tuesday’s Republican debate could start the Perry comeback.)

But I have a hard time seeing it.

Perry’s problems appear to run much deeper than a few controversial statements and what his family’s hunting ranch was called. Put simply, the Texas governor looks like a flawed candidate right now.

It’s baffling for those of us who watched Perry win every election he entered in Texas and who considered him a talented campaigner.

For most of August and September, I told national reporters who called to ask about the governor that Perry was an excellent politician. He may not seem impressive at first, I had said, he may not be a policy whiz or be a slick debater, but he’s a natural on the campaign trail, someone who connects with people, and a man with uncanny political instincts and an aggressive style that rattles his opponents.

That person seems to have disappeared. I don’t recognize the Rick Perry who’s running for president.

He’s making cringe-worthy gaffes during debates and embarrassing comments on television and in speeches. Instead of attacking his opponents, he’s constantly clarifying, explaining, apologizing and back-peddling. Each time he tries to reorient his campaign and get back on the attack, another controversy knocks him on the defensive. I don’t claim to be a political expert, but I do know that candidates who are clarifying and explaining their positions are losing the race.

What’s so puzzling is that the topics giving Perry problems aren’t new. Texas Democrats and Republicans have attacked Perry for years without success on cronyism, HPV and immigration.

Yet now Perry seems flustered. I won’t pretend to know why. Perhaps it’s the same unknowable reason that the potent Red Sox lineup stopped scoring runs late in the season. Perhaps he’s in poor health. Perhaps his campaign team has become too comfortable and overconfident after a string of easy gubernatorial elections. Perhaps Perry just wasn’t that good to begin with.

But whatever the reason, it’s evident that Perry wasn’t prepared for a national campaign. As a result, he’s falling seriously behind.

I’m usually suspicious of early polls, but some of Perry’s numbers are alarming. The latest survey of New Hampshire voters has Perry in a tie for fifth—with just 4 percent of the vote. (The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 percent—so Perry could be as high as 8 percent….but he could also be at zero!) Either way, he trails Romney by about 30 points. The voting in the first primary state begins in 90 days. His numbers in Florida are nearly as bad.

There’s still time to revive his campaign, but the signs aren’t encouraging.

Media reports this past weekend told of a more “disciplined” Perry on the campaign trail in Iowa. Disciplined doesn’t mean better. A New York Times story today portrayed a candidate trying to find the right formula:

Mr. Perry is re-examining his campaign — and himself — in an effort to correct his shortcomings of style and substance….

“He seems uncomfortable on the stage,” said Sam Clovis, a conservative radio host in Sioux City who had a more favorable impression of Mr. Perry after shaking his hand during a weekend campaign stop here. “He’s going to have to get much, much better.”…

He raced through campaign events, delivering speeches that clocked in around eight minutes. He quickly moved to question-and-answer sessions, but after calling on five people, he shouted, “Last question!” (Most candidates assign that task to an aide to avoid the impression that it is the candidate who is eager to go.)….

Several Republican voters who turned out for his campaign events said they knew little about him, aside from the recent debates, and walked away disappointed that they had not learned more.

Steven Berntson, 57, a corn and soybean farmer from Paullina, asked Mr. Perry to discuss the books that have shaped his life. Mr. Perry replied by citing the free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, but did not name the title of his well-known book, “The Road to Serfdom,” as he criticized Keynesian economics and turned back to a general conversation about the economy.

After Mr. Perry finished speaking, as he shook hands and signed autographs nearby, Mr. Berntson said that he was disappointed by the answer and by the fact that he had mentioned only one book.

“I wanted to see how deep he was,” Mr. Berntson said. “I asked an open-ended question that I thought would give the candidate lots and lots of room to help us know who he is. And he talked about it for less than one minute.”

Yikes. Does anyone believe that “The Road to Serfdom” is really the book that shaped Perry’s life? Or did he just say that because he wanted to stay on message? When politicians try to remake themselves on the fly, start heeding consultants’ advice for fixing their flaws, shortening their answers and speeches, and sticking strictly to talking points, it usually doesn’t end well.

Retail politics and speaking to small crowds on the stump is supposed to be Rick Perry’s strength, his specialty, his big advantage over Romney. He’s never been a great debater. He’s not a policy wonk. If he’s struggling on the campaign trail too, then what does he have?

Not that candidates can’t improve their skills. We’ve seen politicians improve aspects of their game over the course of a campaign. (During more than 20 debates in 2007-2008, Barack Obama became a much sharper debater.) But you have to be naturally good at something. It’s very difficult for a candidate to re-invent himself in the middle of a national campaign.

But that’s seemingly what Perry is doing. He reminds me of a baseball player mired in a hitting slump who’s constantly fiddling with his stance, tweaking his swing, grasping for the right adjustment that will yield results. He seems a far less confident candidate than the governor who stormed into the GOP field in August and gallivanted through Iowa.

Worst of all for Perry, his struggles have put him in the uncomfortable position of needing a good performance in the Republican debate on Tuesday night in New Hampshire to turn around his candidacy. That’s a difficult spot for someone who doesn’t excel in debates.

Perry has never been in this position before: needing a sparkling debate performance. He’s typically been ahead in the polls—able to coast through debates by avoiding mistakes. Coasting won’t suffice this time. Pat, empty-sounding answers won’t do it. Perry is behind. People want to see something from him. He needs to show some depth, an understanding of economic problems. He needs to be very good. Can he pull it off? Anything’s possible. But it’s asking an awful lot of Perry.

Like mystified Boston baseball fans, I’m stunned by all that’s gone wrong for Perry. He may still win the nomination, of course. But, right now, he seems more likely to suffer the Red Sox’s fate.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.