MANCHESTER, N.H. — Presidential candidates typically claw their way into the nation’s consciousness. Rick Perry took a bullet train.
Following a few weeks' worth of build-up to create momentum, the Texas governor announced his candidacy in a packed and sweltering hotel ballroom in Charleston, S.C., last Saturday. He is expected back in Austin seven days later for what is sure to be an emotional homecoming after one of the most extraordinary weeks of his life — and in American politics.
Perry not only sparked a debate about the limits of smash-mouth political rhetoric, he has emerged as a top contender for the White House. One poll even showed Perry leading the other GOP hopefuls, though an average of polls put him in second place.
During the first week of his campaign, he backed away from one of the biggest controversies of his political career, upstaged rival Michele Bachmann in her hometown, sparked a series of media frenzies over remarks made on the campaign trail and drew a rare rebuke from the Democratic incumbent he wants to replace.
Speaking of Perry, Barack Obama said, “You’ve got to be a little more careful about what you say” on the campaign trail. It only gave fuel to the swagger-prone governor — as criticism from the left always has. Perry joked a day later that he had “gotten in trouble” from the White House but kept torquing up the rhetoric during a two-day swing through first-test New Hampshire. At one point he referred to Obama as the “excuse-maker in chief.”
Perry clearly made some news that wasn’t released on his timetable, and the campaign will spend a lot of next week hashing out the things that worked and those that didn’t. But from the perspective of Perry’s top political strategist, New Hampshire-bred Dave Carney, it hardly could have gone better.
Carney has a knack for channeling the populist outrage of the Republican rank-and-file, which is handy because his client does, too. Carney told The Texas Tribune this week that the “political elite” doesn’t understand “fly-over country,” the American heartland, like Perry does.
"What is noteworthy is the amount of effort Obama has spent trying to undercut the powerful message on jobs and fiscal sanity that Gov. Perry brings to the contest,” Carney said. “Their hecklers, the surrogate talking points, the henchmen's efforts and the president himself. I would wager that this has never happened in modern times — that an incumbent would weigh in so heavily against a candidate in a hotly contested primary in the other party. They must have some really bad polling data [on] Obama vs. Perry to have dived in so heavily. The only obvious conclusion."
Perry still has a long way to go before he can get a shot at Obama. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still leads in an average of polls by Real Clear Politics. And a recent survey by the Orlando Sentinel showed Romney beating Perry by double digits in the crucial Sunshine State.
While the campaign roll-out this week helped cement Perry’s position as Romney’s leading challenger, there were some rocky moments. Within hours of making it official in Charleston, Perry for the first time had to acknowledge he had erred by issuing an order in 2007 that would have required teenage girls to be vaccinated against HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer.
The 2007 executive order is anathema to the Christian conservatives Perry must court to win, and the governor knew he couldn’t have that hanging over him during his announcement tour.
“I made a mistake,” he said on his first full day in Iowa, where GOP voters will first begin selecting a Republican candidate.
Iowa propelled Perry into the stratosphere of media attention, and it helped him upstage native daughter Bachmann in her hometown of Waterloo. Bachmann seemed more than a little irritated that the Texan was on her home turf. Politico wrote a blistering account of her behavior, later described as rude and unwelcome by one of the event’s organizers. Team Perry, privately comparing Bachmann’s thin-skinned haughtiness to the personality they saw in Kay Bailey Hutchison, was ecstatic.
Perry seemed to be on a roll, and it showed at the Iowa State Fair the next day. The crowd ate up his “Howdy, y’all” charm and unvarnished attacks on Obama. But a few hours later, he set off a firestorm when he warned that things could get “ugly” in Texas for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke if he took the “almost treasonous” step of printing more money to aid the faltering U.S. economy.
It was just one in a series of colorful or controversial statements that turned the second half of Perry’s trip into a media circus. He stirred the pot by saying soldiers wanted a president they could “respect.” Issued a broadside against believers of global warming. Defended the teaching of creationism. And he erroneously said Texas public schools teach that theory along with evolution.
The media wondered — with delight: What was the brash Texan going to say next?
Team Perry seems to have caught on. In the last couple of days the governor has been less available to (and talkative with) reporters, but he is sticking to the no-nuance, us-versus-them script in his speeches and prepared remarks. Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, said it’s working in the Republican-only contest for now.
“This is the Pavlovian dinner bell for most Republicans — you know, global warming and creationism — and going after easy money,” Sabato said. “I don’t see where any of this hurts him in the Republican nominating process. I think it helps him, but I think he does paint himself into a corner that George Bush worked very hard to avoid in 2000.”
In other words, a compassionate conservative Perry is not. That, and years’ worth of catering to the Republican base, could make it hard for him to avoid being tagged by Obama as an extremist.
There's a long way to go in an economic environment that might leave an opening for any GOP candidate. And Perry's penchant for making off-the-cuff remarks has led some to speculate that one false move could send his candidacy up in smoke.
But the trip showed Perry has formidable, perhaps even legendary, skill in the art of retail politics. He proved he can walk into a placard-waving protest in moderate New England with a smile on his face, eat pork chop on a stick and patiently shake the hand of almost any voter who will give him the time of day.
“First impressions mean an awful lot,” said Dave Quinn, a Pembroke, N.H., modular home designer who met Perry at his company’s warehouse last week. “And my first impression was very, very good.”