WASHINGTON — Reenergized by fundraising numbers that augur a two-man race with Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination, Gov. Rick Perry will spend the weekend connecting with Christian conservatives here and early primary voters in Iowa. But he’s got a dark cloud looming on the horizon: two high-stakes presidential debates where he’ll have to vastly improve his performance — and find some semblance of an offense — to break Romney’s stronghold.
“He’s been given second life with respect to his fundraising numbers,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist and former campaign adviser to the McCain-Palin ticket. “A lot of would-be donors are willing to give to Rick Perry if he can just improve his debate performance.”
The D.C. and Iowa trips will wrap up a week that got off to a nasty start: On Sunday, his campaign woke to news reports that the West Texas land Perry’s family leased to hunt was once known by a racial slur.
But things improved dramatically: On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a popular hold-out in the already crowded Republican field, announced he wasn’t entering the race. Not long after, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin followed suit. And on Wednesday, Perry released fundraising totals that showed he’d raked in an impressive $17 million in his first seven weeks as a candidate, compared to Romney’s $18 million over three months. In a primary season where fundraising totals are often a greater determiner of lasting power than poll numbers, the news bolstered Perry’s supporters, who have watched him fall behind Romney, and even Herman Cain, in polls in recent weeks.
“The fundraising ends that conversation,” Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak said. “Perry and Romney are the only two that can fully fund the early primary states, that can really establish national organizations, that can prepare for Super Tuesday.”
But with the key Sept. 30 fundraising deadline behind him, political observers say Perry now has no excuse not to up his game in upcoming Republican debates. In recent performances, he has fallen prey to attacks on his stance on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and his 2007 order making the HPV vaccine mandatory for young girls. And he has stumbled mightily, once offering a mostly nonsensical answer about Romney's penchant for changing policy positions when he clearly intended to be on the offensive.
O’Connell said in Tuesday’s Bloomberg/Washington Post debate in New Hampshire — a state whose primary Perry is unlikely to win — Perry must have a great night, and vastly improve his performance. But the following week’s GOP debate in Las Vegas is even more crucial, O’Connell said, because the early caucus state of Nevada is still largely up for grabs.
“Herman Cain is not going to win the nomination,” O’Connell said. Perry “has to win over those Herman Cain supporters. And the best way to do that is with strong debate performances and better messaging.”
Mackowiak said Perry’s recent debate performances, coupled with Cain’s win in the Florida Straw Poll, unsettled some GOP voters, who started scanning the field for new candidates. But he said this week's developments move the campaign squarely into “Phase 2” — where the Republican field is firmly established, and it’s a Perry-Romney race.
Now, he said, Perry needs to do two things that have evaded him thus far: Move from playing defense to playing offense, and from listing broad ideas to offering specifics.
“He’s done a very good job advertising what works in Texas,” Mackowiak said. “He hasn’t had time to be very specific about what he believes needs to happen.”
But don’t expect Perry’s opponents to give him that luxury. Trailing far down in the polls, Tea Party favorites like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum get their best airtime in the debates, platforms they’ve used to try to chip away at Perry’s conservative credentials.
“The gate is still open for Rick Perry,” O’Connell said, “but he’s got to get moving.”
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