Beset by fundraising troubles, Rick Perry's presidential campaign sees a path forward by morphing into a skeletal operation and living off the land to keep the former Texas governor's candidacy alive through to the start of next year's caucus and primaries.
The Perry team is confident that his economic record as governor for 14 years, coupled with his retail political skills on the stump, give him potential to rise at some point in what so far has proven to be a fluid and unsettled Republican primary campaign.
With money running short, the Perry campaign stopped paying its staff as of last Friday, though almost all are staying on as volunteers for now. The campaign has decided to husband its resources to pay for the candidate's travel, via commercial flights, to events in the early voting states and will focus on getting his message out in earned media interviews.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, Perry campaign manager Jeff Miller laid out Perry's strategy going forward.
"We absolutely know for a fact that the governor’s track record on the economy, on education, even on the climate far surpasses anyone else running for office," Miller said. "Just as importantly, no one matches Rick Perry’s retail politics skills. At the end of the day, it’s not the national poll numbers that will dictate who our nominee is. It’s who can perform well in these early states.”
Miller said that only one staffer has departed the team so far because of the pay shortage, citing personal financial reasons, and that all other aides at national headquarters in Austin and in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are remaining on board as volunteers.
The Perry campaign reported raising $1.14 million in the second quarter of this year and on July 15 reported having $883,913 on hand.
Meanwhile, Perry's well-funded allied super PACs are expanding their operations to compensate for the campaign's shortcomings. The Opportunity and Freedom PACs, which has raised nearly $17 million and initially planned to focus on paid television advertisements, also are building a ground game in Iowa, where they recently hired a state director and deputy state director.
“We saw this coming," said Austin Barbour, senior adviser to the super PACs. "We knew we would have to do more than just paid media and there’s nothing in the playbook that says we can’t do that."
Barbour added, "This field is so fluid. He did fine in Cleveland [debate], but if you let Rick Perry go have a Carly Fiorina type performance at the Reagan Library [debate], we’ll look at a guy who blows up the polls. Things can change overnight with this field. Things can work out great for him if we just be patient.”
In a sign of confidence in Perry's future, Barbour said, the super PAC signed up a new major donor on Tuesday. A rancher in the Amarillo area who is an old friend of Perry's read news about the campaign's money troubles and offered on Tuesday morning to help. Barbour declined to identify the donor because he did not want to subject him to calls from reporters, but said he sent a $100,000 check.
“He wasn’t on our radar screen, but he tracked me down and said, 'I want to help the governor, what can we do?'" Barbour said. "He said, 'I’ve known Rick for a long time,' and he said, 'I’m in.'"
Perry has struggled to rise in polls, and failing to qualify for last week's prime-time debate in Cleveland was a clear setback. He appeared in the undercard debate, only to see Fiorina, a former technology executive, have what many observers considered a breakout performance.
In the weeks leading up to the debate, Perry aggressively took on front-runner Donald Trump, calling the celebrity billionaire "a cancer on conservatism" and his campaign "a barking carnival act."
The move did Perry no good in the polls, as Ohio Gov. John Kasich edged him out to earn the 10th and final spot in the prime-time debate.
Miller said the governor had "zero" regrets about taking on Trump.
“The governor did it because it was the right thing to do," Miller said. "He did it knowing that it may not be helpful, but he would do it all over again, and I would advise him to do it all over again. You know the governor. He’s going to continue doing what he believes is right. He’s not going to placate for poll numbers.”
Miller acknowledged the difficulties of running a credible campaign with a money shortage, but said he finds solace in two examples from recent campaign cycles.
In mid-2007, Sen. John McCain's campaign went nearly broke and fired most of the staff, but the Arizona Republican lived off the land with frequent visits to New Hampshire and ended up recovering and winning the 2008 nomination. At this stage in the 2012 primary, former House speaker Newt Gingrich went into debt and most of his staff deserted him, but Gingrich rebounded and won the South Carolina and Georgia primaries.
“None of those people have the track record that Rick Perry has," Miller said. “Rick Perry performs best when his back’s against the wall.”
The analogy is not without wrinkles, however. McCain was a national figure and maintained substantial support from the Republican establishment throughout his campaign, and both his and Gingrich's efforts were marred more by over-spending than by a lack of fundraising.
Perry plans to campaign in South Carolina on Thursday and will spend four days in Iowa next week, before returning to South Carolina at the end of the month.
“The governor obviously is very confident in his ability to win the nomination," Miller said. "He’s very appreciative of not just the staff, but all of our supporters around the country that believe in him and his ability to win the nomination."