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Rick Perry is no Fred Thompson

Perry is down but far from out. He could easily still be the Republican nominee.
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Remember Fred Thompson? The mumbling, bumbling actor and former U.S. senator who was — briefly all too briefly — the Great Republican Hope in the last presidential campaign? Alas, many people won’t remember him because his candidacy quickly collapsed under the weight of its own nothingness.

Some pundits and Establishment Republican types are now predicting a similar end for Rick Perry. Just under two months ago, Perry made a head-turning official entrance into the presidential campaign. He had everything: a certain Marlboro Man charm, a record of job creation, executive experience, cojones big enough to execute an innocent man, an ability to raise beaucoup cash, and a seemingly sterling record on conservative causes. Overnight, he was the guy to beat.

After credible polls showed Perry with a sizable lead over frontrunner Mitt Romney and the other candidates, veteran Texas Monthly political journalist Paul Burka wrote that “Perry is going to be the Republican nominee. … We might as well skip the primary and go straight to the general election.”

What a difference a month makes. After Perry flamed out in the CNN/Tea Party debate last week, members-in-good-standing of the GOP came tantalizingly close to declaring Perry’s candidacy dead. Neocon Bill Kristol, for example, wrote that Perry’s performance was “close to a disqualifying two hours.”

And they keep piling on.

Michelle Malkin, who’s been hammering Perry for his deviations from right-wing orthodoxy, remarked that since “he’s in favor of making English the official language of the U.S. Perhaps he should concentrate on mastering it before the next debate.”

The broadsides evidently damaged Perry’s standing in the polls. And then his poor showing at the Florida straw poll — where he was trounced by the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza — capped off a miserable sequence of events.

So, is Rick Perry the new Fred Thompson (or Rudy Giuliani or Wesley Clark or Howard Dean)?

I don’t think so. Perry may be down but he’s not out. Here are four reasons why he could still be the nominee.

1) Makin’ it rain

  Perry’s prayers may not have brought rain to Texas but his ability to raise vast amounts of cash is well-established. As governor, Perry has raised $102 million, largely from a relatively small group of rich individuals and corporate interests. We haven’t seen his presidential fundraising totals yet, but the political echo-chamber, for whatever it’s worth, is suggesting that he could raise $10 million or more by the time the numbers are reported in October. Not bad, given that he’s only had two months to rub nickels.

2) The damage is not that bad

Yes, Perry is suffering in the polls from (mostly) self-inflicted wounds but he’s not exactly tanking. Numbers guru Nate Silver looked at Perry’s polling before and after the CNN/Tea Party debate and found that he had slipped from an average of 28 percent to 22 percent. Not good, but it’s not clear that Mitt Romney really benefits. Says Nate:

The polls suggest that Rick Perry’s struggles in the debate — amplified by a storm of skepticism among influential Republicans — have taken a bite out of his numbers. But the spoils seem to have gone mainly to other conservative candidates in the race, rather than Mr. Romney. 

Silver does say that landscape is “more favorable” for Romney now, primarily because the super-conservative faction is divvied up among more candidates. However,

At the same time, you have a candidate in Mr. Romney who has run a very good campaign, who has performed well in the debates, and who leads in fund-raising and endorsements — but who is still barely above 20 percent in surveys, and has made only marginal gains as a number of his rivals have stumbled.

The fallacy some are making is assuming that just because Perry has slipped that he will continue to do so unabated. Analysts sometimes put too much stock in the mushy concept of “momentum.” As in, “Perry is losing momentum/Romney is gaining momentum.” This isn’t physics; it’s politics where there are few ironclad laws. It seems more likely than not that Perry can recover from this stumble, and in two weeks or two months we’ll hardly remember it.

3) Retail politics

Ok, Perry is not a great debater (we’ve been saying that for years) but the importance of that is probably greatly exaggerated by the reality-based community, including elite opinion-makers on the right and left. What he is good at is connecting with Jus’ Folks, something the blue-blood Romney seems to lack. In the early primary states, it does matter how well you can shake hands, kiss babies, warm up small crowds, consume battered and fried food and impress local bigwigs. For anyone who’s observed Perry in Texas, this is something the governor excels at.

 

4) Romney is… Romney

There’s the theory that the Republican Party likes to flirt with its extremists before going home with Mr. Reliable. Think John McCain in 2008. Under this theory, GOP voters will eventually, reluctantly give up on Perry (and Bachmann and Cain and Santorum, et al) and turn to Romney, the once and future heir apparent. Well, as Romney would say, “nice try.”

This is 2011, not 2008, and the GOP base has lurched so far to the right that we’ve now invented drinking games based on whose death the debate audiences will cheer next: Gays? Prisoners? The Uninsured?

Romney’s flaws vis-a-vis Perry are not hard to see: He’s a blue blood; he’s from Taxachussetts; he passed ObamaCare before ObamaCare existed; he’s, um, Mormon. If Perry can consolidate conservatives by peeling support from the second- and third-tier candidates and make the obvious attacks against Romney, he’s got a good chance of being The One. Romney’s support has probably peaked. Perry still has room for growth.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.