Perry's Gaffe-Prone Campaign Isn't Ready for Prime Time

Politics is hard, and it gets harder as you move up the food chain.

Look at Rick Perry, whose 27-year political career has taken him to the top of state government in a state known for tough politics. His status has gone from hero to hospice faster than Vince Young’s.

His “oops” — in a debate Wednesday night, the governor couldn’t remember his list of three federal agencies to abolish and ended a humbling and awkward minute of brain freeze on that pitiful note — might be the first word in the autopsy report on his presidential campaign.

Perry followed by doing the right thing, from a crisis management standpoint. He walked into the spin room, stood in front of the cameras and said, “I stepped in it, man.” He ate his crow while it was hot. The next morning, though still dangerously and remarkably wobbly, he appeared on morning TV shows to try to turn the conversation to his “human moment,” to the “media froth” about it, and to the idea that there are lots of federal agencies worthy of death.

But it’s the Perry campaign — not the federal agencies — that’s on the gurney. In and of itself, his gaffe really was just a human moment. Might have happened to anyone. But it’s not a lone symptom: Perry has been failing at this presidential thing almost since he started.

Perry stayed out of the race all summer, which had the advantage of building buzz, exciting donors and activists, freezing support that might have landed with others, and — this is important — protecting himself from debates and attacks.

He was winning right up to the moment he entered the competition. That momentum carried for a short time but when it was time for him to show his stuff, his stuff wasn’t good enough.

Mitt Romney, the front-runner then and now, is the only reason Perry (among other candidates) still has a pulse. Romney is known to Republican voters, yet they’re still looking for a nominee. That lack of enthusiasm attracted Perry and prolonged the flirting from other prospects like Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and Chris Christie.

It’s why Herman Cain is still under consideration. Cain has been stumbling for two weeks. Every mistake he makes adds evidence to the argument that he’s not ready for this.

Perry’s gaffe works the same way, if with different subject matter.

The good politicians and public figures are like jazz musicians. Master the instrument. Master the material. Practice until all of that disappears and exists in the music. Do it right and people will marvel at how easy you made it look. They won’t believe you when you say you were making up the solo as you played it, because the improvisation was so fluid and fit the situation so well.

Everyone on the Republican stage has some talent. The point of putting them on stage is to see who has more. Perry, who avoided debates as governor and who has never weathered a significant attack from a candidate who is more conservative than he is, is losing the contest.

If he really has the chops to do this, now is when we’ll find out. To turn this around he’s got to show voters quickly that he’s not a joke, that he can compete at this level, that he’s the best alternative to Romney and that he would stand a ghost of a chance in a campaign with Barack Obama.

He’s been through all the excuses. In one version, it was lingering problems from back surgery, complete with speculation that his weirdness on the trail had something to do with painkillers. His campaign dismissed that as news media malarkey. Or it was fatigue, when Perry faltered in the latter parts of his first debates. That fueled the first spoof of Perry on Saturday Night Live.

The problems were serious enough that he retooled his campaign, firing no one but bringing in some well-known Republican operatives, a list led by Joe Allbaugh.

Allbaugh’s resume includes more than three-dozen campaigns. He was chief of staff to Gov. George W. Bush. And he was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Bush’s first term.

Allbaugh was at FEMA for floods, tornados, and for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Now he’s working Rick Perry through a different kind of disaster.

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