Perry Looks to New Focus, Staff for Campaign Turnaround

Rick Perry meets with a worker in a South Carolina plastics plant before delivering his flat tax speech.
Rick Perry meets with a worker in a South Carolina plastics plant before delivering his flat tax speech.

We all know the story by now: Rick Perry jumps into the Republican presidential race and vaults to the top of field, only to fall dramatically after a series of weak debate performances and other stumbles.

“Running for president is a much different stage then running for governor of Texas, and Gov. Perry didn't appear to realize that in his first couple of months,” said Reid Wilson, editor-in-chief of National Journal's Hotline blog.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

That sentiment has been echoed across the country. Americans have seen poor preparation from a candidate unaccustomed to being grilled on policy issues. And they've seen poor debate performances from a candidate who has faced off with an opponent only a handful of times in his 10 years as governor and refused to debate his Democratic opponent in 2010.

The effect has been dropping poll numbers among GOP voters who aren’t embracing Perry's policies the way Texans have.

 

“I think Rick Perry vastly underestimated how volatile the Republican electorate is right now,” said Democratic strategist Jason Stanford.

Volatile and, it would appear, unwilling to compromise on certain topics. Until now, Perry could count on voters in Texas to broadly support him on immigration. The governor talks tough on border security, but he has been more tolerant of illegal immigrants themselves.

“Gov. Perry did not demonstrate that kind of hardline approach, and I think his campaign was surprised by the reaction it got,” Wilson said. “It is a message that plays well in Texas that doesn't necessarily play well with conservative voters outside of Texas.”

This was especially true when it came to a law allowing some students who are in the country illegally to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities.

The conservative organization Americans for Prosperity has been a major supporter of Perry over the years, but the director of the Texas chapter said it can't support that measure.

“It does seem unfair to many of us in the state and across the country that illegal immigrants would have a greater advantage than, let's say, our neighbors to the north in Oklahoma who are legal U.S. citizens,” said Peggy Venable of Americans for Prosperity.

Perry’s stumbles have led to recent additions and demotions to his campaign staff. Most notably, he brought in President George W. Bush's 2000 election campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, as the campaign's top strategist — a role that Dave Carney has played for years.

There are four debates over the next four weeks. If Perry can turn around his performance, he could still make people forget about his previous outings. Wilson said that beyond that, the campaign has to focus on what Perry does best: retail politicking, spending time meeting voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

 

“I think when Gov. Perry gets back on the ground in those states, you're going to see him start to move," Wilson said. "He's already started to run advertisements in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina. I expect his poll numbers to rise because of them, and because he's the only person actually on the air."

Stanford said he expects Perry to go on the attack.

“I imagine Rick Perry's out for blood right now," Stanford said. "I'd really hate to be Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum who walks up smugly and tries to land a punch on Rick Perry at this point."

Perry might even be trying to land a few punches of his own. Herman Cain accused the Perry camp of leaking information to Politico after the news site revealed that the National Restaurant Association paid a cash settlement to two staff members over sexual harassment allegations against Cain in the 1990s.

The Perry campaign has denied any involvement. As part of that denial, the accused leaker — new Perry staffer Curt Anderson — suggested during a CNN interview that some candidates can’t handle the pressure of a presidential campaign.

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.