Perry Looking for Surge in Iowa as Cain Struggles

Gov. Rick Perry campaigns at the Iowa State Fair two days after entering the presidential race.
Gov. Rick Perry campaigns at the Iowa State Fair two days after entering the presidential race.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Herman Cain’s troubles could be big enough to threaten his top-tier candidacy — and perhaps give a badly needed boost to the governor of Texas. And at least one prominent Perry supporter is ready to pounce on the opportunity.

Bob Schuman, chairman of the independent group Americans for Rick Perry, said he is trying to raise money for a negative ad here against top contender Mitt Romney, who is essentially tied with Cain in Iowa. He won’t disclose yet what the ad is about but says it’s “in production.”

Schuman said it’s too early in the unfolding Cain controversy to detect any surges, but he predicts conservatives will naturally gravitate back toward Perry, who once held a commanding lead here in Iowa and across the nation but is now at around 10 percent according to the latest average of national polls conducted by RealClearPolitics.

“As it continues to shake out, I think conservatives will coalesce behind that one candidate who they think can beat Romney. That candidate has to be Perry,” Schuman said. “Perry is the only rational conservative alternative to Romney.”

Cain, like Perry, went from nowhere-ville to political stardom seemingly overnight. But now the Georgia businessman’s campaign is being rocked by allegations that he sexually harassed women while serving as CEO of the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s.

Cain said he never harassed anyone, but his ever-evolving answers, and the drip-drip of revelations about his alleged conduct, could torpedo his status as the latest front-runner to emerge in the 2012 GOP race. Cain first blamed the media and then pointed the finger at Perry, but the Texas governor and his aides say they had nothing to do with spreading the story that was first reported by Politico.

Now the Cain campaign is even backing off of that assertion. According to a report in The Hill, Cain's chief of staff is now walking back his claim that the Perry campaign had anything to do with the leak. And new details are beginning to emerge about how much the women who accused him of harassment got paid.

As long as Perry doesn’t get blamed for orchestrating a smear campaign, his natural strengths could put him back into the game in first-test Iowa, which holds its caucuses in just two months, analysts say.

“The advantage Perry has is … one, he’s good at the retail politics, which we like here in Iowa, and two, he’s got the money to back it up,” said Tim Hagle, professor of political science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“This is [Perry’s] moment,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “You’re not going to have enormous gains by Perry or anybody else. You’re going to have marginal gains. But that’s the whole point. A lot can happen as this Cain disaster unfolds.”

Perry held three events in Iowa on Tuesday and is expected back today for a town hall event in Johnston, just outside of Des Moines. He’ll stick around for the high-profile Reagan Dinner, put on by the Iowa GOP, on Friday night. Four other major contenders, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, are also expected to attend.

Perry is currently running positive ads on TV and radio in Iowa, and a Super PAC devoted to him — and run by his confidante, Texas lobbyist Mike Toomey — is poised to play a big role by raising contributions in unlimited amounts to fuel an ad campaign in the early nominating states.

Other candidates who may not have as much money as Perry are also in line to benefit from a Cain stumble. Gingrich, for example, has caught on as a sort of elder statesman who has been portrayed as above the fray, and has seen his poll numbers edge up.

Paul, meanwhile, has the sort of grassroots infrastructure that counts in a caucus environment, and Santorum became the first candidate this week to visit all 99 counties in Iowa. The former senator, stuck in the low single digits, is hoping to finally become the flavor of the month — just as the Jan. 3 caucuses get underway.

Sabato said Perry is facing the likelihood of a crushing blow in the first primary in New Hampshire, where Romney is running way ahead of his competitors, on Jan. 10. That raises the stakes dramatically for the caucuses the week before in Iowa. In the last Des Moines Register poll, Perry was barely ahead of Santorum, and tied for fifth place with Gingrich, at 7 percent.

"Either he’s going to break through in Iowa or he’s not going to break through" at all, Sabato said.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.