Gov. Rick Perry spent Thursday putting the best face he could on one of the worst TV debate moments in U.S. presidential campaign history. But his supporters and donors alike are deeply rattled, and they are treating first-test Iowa, with its caucus scheduled for Jan. 3, as if it is his last chance for political survival.
The governor has been in full damage-control mode since his infamous flub during a CNBC debate Wednesday night in which he could not remember the third of three federal agencies he has vowed to eliminate (he managed to say the Education and Commerce Departments but couldn't remember Energy). He rushed to the media “spin room” after the debate to joke about and explain the gaffe, a 53-second memory lapse so painful to watch, and so embarrassing, that the governor himself ended it by saying “oops.”
Perry abruptly changed around his schedule Thursday, too, making the rounds of all the morning talk shows and taping an appearance on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman. Perry canceled a fundraiser that had been scheduled in Tennessee for Thursday.
It was probably a no-brainer: The money game hasn’t been going well recently — and his latest debate appearance will make it even more difficult, sources close to the fundraising operation told The Texas Tribune.
“It’s been tough the last couple of weeks, and it’s going to get tougher,” one of them said. Another acknowledged there has been “pullback” from donors and said anything short of a strong showing in Iowa will likely doom his campaign — if it's not doomed already.
“We’ve got to be first or second in Iowa,” said a source in Perry’s fundraising network. “We need some momentum.”
What makes Perry's debate gaffe so agonizing for his supporters is their belief that the Texas governor was on the verge of making a comeback, particularly since Georgia businessman Herman Cain increasingly has found himself on the defensive amid allegations of sexual harassment.
Ford O'Connell, a Virginia Republican strategist who advised the McCain-Palin campaign in the last presidential race, said Perry's debate performance will make it very difficult for him to be a serious contender in early primary states. But, he said, if Cain slips, voters who want an alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might give the Texas governor another look.
"If he can win Iowa he can get back in," O'Connell said of Perry. "The man is one of the best retail politicians we have in the Republican party."
O'Connell called Romney, whose poll numbers have remained largely stagnant, "the luckiest candidate in a Republican field that's imploding."
Perry, once a front-running candidate, had been trying to recover after suffering a series of debate setbacks when the "brain freeze" hit him Wednesday night. One Perry endorser in Iowa, Hamilton County GOP chairman Mark Greenfield, let his frustration spill out into the open.
“He’s been in the single digits and has not been getting any traction,” Greenfield said. “His poll numbers are down.”
Greenfield said he had high hopes for the Michigan debate, but the gaffe left him dejected.
“We were thinking he really needed to hit a home run,” Greenfield said. “He needed to have a good performance and he didn’t. … He is just not a good debater.” Greenfield said he still supports Perry and thinks the Texas governor can win.
The Perry campaign is looking for a boost in Iowa to help him in other early contests, although New Hampshire looks more and more out of reach. Romney has built up a formidable lead in New Hampshire, where recent polls have put Perry in the low single digits.
Perry is also struggling to get back on top in South Carolina, supposedly the Texas governor’s southern “firewall” and the location of his Aug. 13 campaign launch.
Perry heads to the Palmetto State — and straight into another debate — on Saturday. The bad news for Perry: It will be nationally televised on a broadcast network, CBS, instead of a cable news network. And the topic is national security and foreign policy, subjects the governor has not handled particularly well during the campaign.
South Carolina holds its primary, the first in the south, on Jan. 21.
“I think he wants to get this campaign to South Carolina,” a source close to Perry’s campaign said. “I think South Carolina is his do or die.”
Reporter Emily Ramshaw contributed to this story.