The road ahead of Rick Perry is a difficult one, but it’s not that complicated. And the number of candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination helps him more than it hurts.
If he can take care of three things, the former Texas governor will still be a presidential candidate at the start of 2016.
1. Stay in the race while the herd thins.
The former governor started at the front of the pack four years ago — the most popular candidate in the field when he got into the race. He went from the front to the back in a few short months.
This year, he starts at the back, where the other candidates have no real reason to take potshots. He doesn’t have to raise giant amounts of money at this stage — just enough to stay in the hunt, travel and get his name out in the early primary states. Big money will land later, when the pack has thinned to a half-dozen or fewer candidates — by the time the actual voting starts, in other words. One of Perry’s tasks is to get into that final handful. He doesn’t have to win yet, or even dominate. Just stay alive. The money will follow.
2. Get rid of those pesky prosecutors.
He has to get rid of his criminal indictment on charges that he misused his office as governor to try to coerce an elected official to quit her office. After Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg was arrested and pleaded guilty to drunken-driving charges in 2013, Perry said she should resign from her office, which coincidentally has the job of prosecuting corruption charges involving state officials. And he threatened to veto her office’s state funding if she didn’t do what he demanded. She stayed, and he vetoed. A special prosecutor appointed by a visiting judge took the case to a Travis County grand jury, which indicted the governor.
Perry and his legal team have argued that the case is a political one brought by liberal prosecutors in a liberal county to a liberal grand jury, that his veto was legal, and that the whole thing was designed to spoil his political future.
At the very least, it will test the conventional wisdom that Republican voters are unlikely to nominate an indicted former governor as their presidential candidate.
In a perfect world for Perry, his lawyers would have already ended that case and put it behind him. That’s still the job ahead. The indictment is fodder for any rival who wants to discredit Perry; those rivals have no reason to use it until and unless Perry starts to make headway in the race for the nomination.
The better he does, the bigger the indictment obstacle becomes. It’s a bother now. It’s a potential deal-breaker if he becomes a real contender.
3. Land some debate real estate.
Debates are a more immediate hurdle. That’s not a reference to Perry’s flop four years ago; his "Oops" moment was awful in an internet-age kind of way, but it really served as punctuation for other problems that had already surfaced. Put simply, Perry wasn’t prepared for a national run, and his first candidacy for president proved it in the most public way.
The debate hurdle this year is about access. No reasonable programmer is going to stage a debate with all of the Republican candidates in attendance. That would be as edifying as a bacon cookoff in the middle of a kennel.
They’ll cull the herd, allowing the candidates who are performing best onto the stage, splitting the candidates into groups, trying to find a format that allows voters to hear what from the people most likely to remain in the race for the long haul.
Perry doesn’t have to lead the pack, but he has to get on stage or he’ll find himself sitting in a green room with permanent also-rans like Donald Trump.
The former governor has some advantages and attributes that have been forgotten in the wake of his campaign four years ago. The same things that made him an attractive candidate are still there: experience, support from the Tea and social and establishment parts of the GOP, political ability, and the success of the state during his 14-year run as its chief executive.
If he can get on stage, remain in the race, and get rid of that indictment, he’ll have a chance to talk about those qualities — like he tried to do four years ago.