Pity Rick Perry.
Four years ago, he was unprepared and soaring in the polls for the Republican presidential nomination. Today he’s prepared and unpopular, scrambling for enough support to win his own podium in this year's first debate.
The constituencies that made him a contender four years ago are still there. He’s appealing to social and movement conservatives, to the Tea Party, to the country clubbers, the evangelicals — just about every variety of Republican you can conjure. But the campaign four years ago wasn’t a building block for his current candidacy so much as an impediment.
You remember that ‘oops’ moment — everybody does — but that’s not what sunk the ship last time.
His fall began seven weeks before with his unpopular position and unpolished answer on the Texas version of the Dream Act. In-state tuition at state colleges and universities is available to undocumented immigrant teens who graduate from Texas high schools, have been in the country for three years, applied for citizenship and have the grades and test scores to win admission to those schools.
It was popular with Texas conservatives when it passed more than a decade ago. They liked the idea of turning people who might be a drag on the economy into people who would contribute after going to college.
But in a key debate leading up to the 2012 elections, Perry didn’t leave it at that. Instead, he scolded the other GOP candidates for challenging the policy: “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they've been brought there through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart,” Perry said.
What made sense in Texas didn’t make sense to Republicans elsewhere. A more prepared candidate might have known how to sell that, but not Perry.
At this point four years ago, Perry was still a couple of weeks away from declaring his candidacy for president after playing hard to get for months. He first said he would not run, then repeated through the spring that running for national office wasn’t on his agenda. He finally jumped in when it became evident that Republican voters, unexcited about their choices, were willing to shop around.
Perry seemed to have it all — or at least to have something the other candidates hadn’t exhibited. But he wasn’t kidding with that hard-to-get thing. George W. Bush spent months studying up on presidential material when he was governor, knowing from family experience that there are a million ways to lose a national primary.
Perry didn’t. He made it farther than someone new to presidential politics might have — almost three decades as a public official helped — but it quickly became clear that he wasn’t ready to sit in the Oval Office, as much as some voters wanted him to fit in.
Now he is undistracted by a job at the top of state government. He has studied. He’s not the richest candidate but probably has the money to make it into the first quarter of 2016 and the early primaries, including Texas and some other states where he would have to do well to win.
But he’s not the freshest thing on the shelf this time. His last run tagged him as unintelligent. The glasses help. So does the homework he’s done. His speech on the economy this week was seriously received by the pundits and policy types.
The bright shiny objects, however, are elbowing him out of the limelight. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, to name a couple, have grabbed public attention this year the way Perry did four years ago.
It’s hard for anyone else to get oxygen. For candidates like Jeb Bush, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The people in the lead are the targets for the people in the back. Unlike Perry, Bush isn’t far enough back to worry about it right now.
The former Texas governor got some mixed good news when one of his two indictments was knocked down. But he’s still under indictment, a condition troubling and distracting during a political race. It offers voters a reason to strike him from the giant Republican pack.
The upside is that there is still time, especially if he can get on the debate stage and if it is another candidate’s year to play the fool. Debates offer Perry a critical chance to convince Republicans that this time is different.
He couldn’t survive in the spotlight four years ago. He won’t survive without it this time.