Gov. Rick Perry’s meteoric rise to the top of the Republican field last month led many observers to conclude that the Texas governor would waltz to his party’s presidential nomination.
It’s looking more like a grind dance now.
What’s clear after Orlando — an awful debate performance and a humbling loss in the Florida Straw Poll — is that Perry needs to get some rest, step up his game in nationally televised debates and give better and more substantive answers on issues his base cares about deeply.
“He needs to regroup,” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. “He’s so uneven. He’s done well sometimes, poorly others. It’s unusual that you have a candidate who does show such a disparity in performance. I think part of that is exhaustion.”
Sources close to the governor have said privately that Perry is still suffering from the effects of his summer back surgery, making it difficult for him to stand for hours on end. Reporters have tweeted pictures of Perry wearing sturdy, comfortable shoes — as opposed to his traditional cowboy boots — while he debates.
The governor's tendency to run out of gas toward the end of the televised debates has now become such an ingrained notion that Saturday Night Live poked fun at it in its debut this weekend.
“This is normally when you get tired and confused,” the mock moderator says.
The official line from Team Perry: There are no health issues.
Perry is "doing some light running and walking a lot,” said spokesman Robert Black. “His back is fine.” Perry’s top consultant, Dave Carney, also gave assurances to The Washington Post that the Texas governor is not taking any pain medication.
Despite the brave public face, advisers admit Perry's troubles mounted after the Florida debate, and they acknowledge he needs more debate prep and a travel schedule that gives him a little more down time.
To say that Perry had a bad week, as one of his advisers put it, would be “charitable.” The conservative punditry has turned on the Texas governor, and his shaky debate performance in Florida has sparked real concern among supporters and potential donors that he could suffer a collapse that is just spectacular as his rise.
“You could hear checkbooks slamming shut all over America at about 9:30 Thursday night,” said one lobbyist who still supports Perry but believes he wounded himself badly in the Fox News/Google debate.
Sabato and other analysts say it's way too early to call Perry toast. For one thing, conservatives who dominate the GOP electorate still have doubts about Mitt Romney, Perry's main competition. A CNN poll released Monday shows slippage, but Perry still leads Romney by 7 points. The governor has also held a series of high-profile fundraisers, so unless the money dries up, he should have millions to wage battle at least until the Iowa caucuses begin narrowing the field early next year.
"This is going to be a long battle. It’s going to be a roller coaster," Sabato said. "Just because Perry had a really tough week, and he did, it doesn't mean that he can’t come back."
Most of Perry's troubles have been self-inflicted. In the second televised debate, he gave a monumentally bad answer about his controversial push to vaccinate young girls against sexually transmitted HPV, suggesting that he was "offended" at the idea that a relatively tiny $5,000 political donation could get his attention on the subject.
Then in the third debate, he outraged many would-be supporters by suggesting that were heartless for not joining him in supporting Texas legislation that provides in-state tuition to young illegal immigrants who graduate from Texas high schools. Perry was on the verge of walking away with the Florida Straw Poll until that line.
Activists opposed to Perry's in-state tuition position are now discussing plans to picket the governor's events in Iowa and South Carolina, early primary states where Perry is making a big push — and where illegal immigration is a big issue, said William Gheen, president of the hardliner Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, or ALIPAC.
Perry also flubbed a response on a key international issue in the third debate. Asked how he would respond to a 3 a.m. phone call saying Pakistani nukes had fallen into the hands of the Taliban, Perry began talking about the importance of the U.S. relationship with India and, at one point, Taiwan.
Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist who has watched Perry for years, said the Texas governor is "absolutely at sea" when asked about complicated international issues.
"I think the idea that Rick Perry was going to go wire to wire — jump in, go straight to the top of the polls and automatically be the nominee — was a fantasy," Jillson said. "To jump from Texas to the national level is very substantial, and he's not yet made that jump."
Texas Tribune reporter Reeve Hamilton and Assistant Managing Editor Emily Ramshaw contributed to this story.
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.