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To the Surprise of Many, Perry Finds Himself Neck and Neck — With Gingrich

Gov. Rick Perry is increasingly sharing third place with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a candidate many — including some of Gingrich's former strategists — had written off.

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As GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney’s poll numbers hover at an anemic 25 percent and Herman Cain tries with growing desperation to fend off damaging allegations of sexual harassment, Gov. Rick Perry is increasingly sharing third place with former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a candidate many — including some of Gingrich’s former strategists — had written off.

Two of Perry’s longtime gubernatorial campaign operatives, Dave Carney and Rob Johnson, worked for Gingrich and his presidential campaign until a staff exodus in June. Carney and Johnson enlisted with Perry in August when the Texas governor entered the race. Now, they’re watching Gingrich overtake Perry in some polls, in an awkward, even ironic, campaign twist.

“Are they kicking themselves now?” asked Craig Schoenfeld, an Iowa political strategist who left Gingrich’s campaign and later worked on behalf of Americans for Rick Perry, an exploratory committee for the Texas governor. He's now working for neither. “I don’t know if they’re having buyer's remorse or not,” he said. 

If they are, Carney and Johnson aren’t saying — they didn’t respond to requests for comment. And they couldn’t have known the numbers would shift like they have.

By mid-September, just weeks after Perry entered the race, he was polling at 32 percent, while Gingrich was at just over 4 percent, according to an average of polls published by RealClearPolitics. But by mid-October, after a series of rough debate performances, Perry was only polling at an average 14 percent, while Gingrich had bumped up slightly to 8 percent. Now, the latest polling average shows Gingrich surpassing Perry by a single percentage point, 11 percent to 10 percent, nationally; in Iowa, that spread is 2 points.

Perry, who reported a $15 million campaign war chest in third-quarter filings, has enjoyed a huge fundraising advantage over Gingrich. The former speaker only had $350,000 cash on hand during that same period, but said he raised more in October than he did in the previous three months.

With attention shifting to Gingrich — a headline in The Atlantic on Monday asked, “Is Newt Gingrich the Republican Party’s Next Hope?” — and coverage of Cain’s sexual harassment accusations still intense, Perry will have to work overtime to redirect traffic in tonight’s GOP presidential debate in Rochester, Mich. It's another eight-candidate, hard-to-get-a-word-in forum, this time cosponsored by CNBC, the Michigan Republican Party and Oakland University.

If enthusiasm and applause from the crowd is any indication, Gingrich outperformed Perry and his other rivals at their last stage-sharing event, at Friday’s Reagan Night Dinner in Des Moines, Iowa. Gingrich was the only one of the five presidential candidates to attend who received a standing ovation — a frequent occurrence for him, particularly among Tea Party-friendly crowds. He’s even got the endorsement of two congressmen from Perry’s home state, Reps. Michael Burgess and Joe Barton.

“I like Newt because of his intellect,” said Arnold DeWitt, a Des Moines Republican activist who was leaning toward Cain — before the latest round of sexual harassment allegations — but listed Gingrich as his second choice.

Republican voter and activist Marilyn Hansen of West Des Moines repeated a common refrain: that she was impressed with Perry until she started seeing him all over TV.

“I expected good things from him,” she said. “But then he opened his mouth at that first debate. You can’t take back what you say.”

If Perry’s debate performances remain hit or miss — there are several more in coming weeks — and Cain continues to falter, that could propel Gingrich upward in first-test Iowa and other states. At a Houston-area Tea Party-sponsored match-up on Saturday between Gingrich and Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza — clearly reeling from negative attention — seemed off his game, at times giving the go-ahead to Gingrich to tackle more difficult policy-minded questions.

Schoenfeld, who is no longer working for any presidential PAC or candidate, said Gingrich is hanging in there so doggedly because he has remained true to form, running a substantive campaign in the hopes that “issues and ideas will prevail over 30 second soundbites.” In recent weeks, Schoenfeld said, they have.

“The increase in poll numbers, it’s because folks tuning in have seen he’s about ideas and substance,” he said.

But Schoenfeld, who said campaign rules prohibit him from endorsing a candidate, argued that despite stubbing his toe in recent debates, the well-funded Texas governor has a clear path back, via direct mail, paid media spots and an aggressive grassroots effort.

“I think once he does that, you’ll see his numbers change,” Schoenfeld said. “I would not discount Perry being competitive.”

Perry’s Iowa campaign chairman couldn’t agree more. Watching a throng of voters greet the Texas governor at Des Moines’ Hy-Vee Hall events center on Friday, Bob Haus said Perry will re-emerge in that state, stronger than before.

“People want to meet him, they connect,” he said. “That stuff is important in Iowa.” 

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