Ahead of the first Republican presidential debate last month in Cleveland, Rick Perry faced a question that seems quaint in retrospect: Was he polling high enough to qualify for the prime time event?
With the second debate a week away, the question has gotten grimmer: Does the former Texas governor have enough paid staff in the early voting states to even bother making the trip?
The answer is yes, according to Perry's campaign, but it's a sign of how much the political fortunes of the former governor — an underdog in the 2016 race from the get-go — have plummeted in the several weeks since his campaign stopped paying staff amid fundraising struggles.
On Tuesday, Perry's team had to respond to another unflattering development: the closure of his campaign headquarters in South Carolina. Katon Dawson, the chairman of Perry's campaign in the Palmetto State, insisted his team was simply moving to another building, but the news served as the latest reminder of Perry's shrinking footprint in the early voting states.
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed confirmed Tuesday the campaign was paying at least one staffer in two of the first four states to vote in GOP primaries next year — Jamie Johnson in Iowa and Le Frye in South Carolina — a requirement to participate in the debate CNN is hosting Sept. 16 in California.
But members of Perry's Austin staff are still not collecting paychecks, the result of an across-the-board pay freeze earlier this summer that led to significant cutbacks among the campaign's ranks in the early voting states.
Perry's campaign has effectively closed shop in New Hampshire, where Mike Dennehy, once Perry's top adviser there, is still backing the former governor but no longer working for him in a formal capacity. Johnson is leading the campaign's efforts in Iowa with the help of onetime senior strategist Bob Haus, who is working as a volunteer. And in South Carolina, Frye has the assistance of four people also working as volunteers, including Dawson.
"We believe in the governor, and we're going to keep working," Dawson said Tuesday.
A campaign collapse in South Carolina could be especially damaging for Perry, said Bruce Haynes, a GOP consultant with ties to the state. As his gaffe-filled 2012 campaign dragged on, Perry's hopes increasingly centered on the Palmetto State, particularly after he finished second-to-last in the Iowa caucuses and failed to catch fire in the Granite State, whose more moderate voters were not seen as a natural match for Perry's swaggering conservatism.
"The problem for Perry is that he didn't sell well in Iowa last time and New Hampshire's never going to be a place for him, so politically, ideologically, for him to get off the ground, South Carolina was always going to be the launching pad for Rick Perry," said Haynes, president of the bipartisan political consulting firm Purple Strategies.
"If he can't compete in South Carolina this time, our weekly episodes of 'The Walking Dead' are about to come to an end," added Haynes, referring to the popular zombie series on AMC.
The staffing woes have spawned predictions that Perry's campaign is on its deathbed, the most prominent coming from his chief antagonist for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump. During a news conference Thursday in New York, the real estate mogul said Perry is "getting out of the race" after his attacks on Trump backfired.
Asked about Trump's comment in a TV interview later Thursday, Perry appeared to not only misuse an expression, but also misuse an incorrect version of it.
"You know, a broken clock is right once a day," Perry said on Fox News. "The bottom line is I'm still here and I'm still working."
It's unclear what Perry's day-to-day activities entail nowadays. The last trip his campaign advised was a three-day swing through South Carolina that ended a week and a half ago, an unusually long period for a candidate to be off the campaign trail as the 2016 race enters a new season.
Perry plans to return to the Hawkeye State later this month, though details about the trip are not yet available. There the main super PAC backing Perry, Opportunity and Freedom PAC, is working to prop up his cash-strapped campaign, including with a six-figure ad buy launched Tuesday on cable and satellite TV across the state.
Along with the other GOP hopefuls, Perry has been invited to a handful of cattle calls before the end of the month, including candidate forums Sept. 19 in Des Moines, Iowa, and Sept. 18 in Greenville, South Carolina. Those events come in the days immediately following the next debate, which Perry's backers view as another opportunity to break out, even if his national polling — currently averaging 1.3 percent by one measure — confines him to the lower-tier event.
"He would have to be the consensus winner of that debate to really give the campaign a boost," said David Johnson, an Iowa state senator supporting Perry. "It would have to be a clear consensus just as it was for Carly Fiorina in the previous [debate], even though I think the governor did very well."
Yet the stench of political death continues to linger around Perry, whose rivals have so far struck a deferential tone in response to questions about his campaign struggles. Among those foes: fellow Texas Republican Ted Cruz, the U.S. senator whom Perry has alluded to throughout his 2016 campaign as too young and inexperienced to be president.
"He'll make his own decisions about what to do with his campaign," Cruz told reporters Thursday in Kingwood. "In terms of what I'm doing — look, I'm certainly trying to do everything I can to earn the support of all his supporters and the support of everyone else's."