Perry's Debate Changes the South Carolina Equation

Texas Governor at the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire on October 11, 2011.
Texas Governor at the Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire on October 11, 2011.

Joe Dugan watched the Wednesday night GOP debate with a group of Republican activists at a restaurant in South Carolina. Dugan heads the Myrtle Beach Tea Party and helps coordinate its statewide efforts. Watching the governor’s inability to name the third of three federal agencies he wants to eliminate, he said, was uncomfortable, and many people at the restaurant felt sorry for Perry.

Audio: Ben Philpott's story for KUT News

"'Cause we’ve all experienced moments like that, where you’re speaking in front of a group and for whatever reason you just draw a blank in your mind," Dugan said.

Dugan is skeptical of a Perry campaign comeback — the governor had dropped to fourth place in some polls even before the debate. But Dugan isn’t ready to declare Perry's candidacy over.

“Anything can happen," he said. "If it happened to him last night, it can happen to another candidate at the next debate. But time is running short.

And yet there still may be a few second chances left for the Perry campaign. Evan Smith, CEO and editor-in-chief of the Tribune, KUT’s political reporting partner, says it’s premature to count Perry out because he remains Mitt Romney's biggest competition.

“Herman Cain was not going to be president before the sexual harassment scandal came up. And he’s certainly not going to be president now," Smith said. "The only way Newt Gingrich is going to get into the White House is if he goes on the tour. And other than that it falls off the cliff in terms of plausibility of candidates, with the exception of Perry.”

Perry may have enough money to campaign through the first four caucus and primary elections. But his continued debate mishaps will require a change in strategy. Could that mean throwing all his money and time to make a last stand in South Carolina?

“A more likely scenario is that the focus is no long simply on South Carolina," Smith said. "Or I should say, he no longer has the luxury of writing off a first-place victory in Iowa and New Hampshire on the assumption that he can regain everything in South Carolina. I think he’s got to double-down on Iowa now.”

Winning Iowa might be a necessity for Perry to convince South Carolina voters he’s a viable candidate. Based on the results of a poll taken of people in South Carolina who watched the debate, Dugan said the governor has a very large hole to climb out of to remain viable.

“Nobody that voted in the poll voted for either Romney or Perry," Dugan said.

Historically, that’s actually not so bad for Perry. Think back to the polls released during the second week of November 2007. Then, Rudy Giuliani had nearly twice as much support as second-place Fred Thompson, 30 percent to 16 percent, with the eventual nominee, John McCain, trailing in third.

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