Rick Perry: It’s now or never

at 01:10 PM ET, 11/01/2011

Texas Gov. Rick Perry stands at a now-or-never moment for his presidential campaign, teetering between second-tier status and emerging as the prime alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the nomination fight.


This October 18, 2011 file photo shows Texas Gov. Rick Perry as he participates in the Republican Presidential debate hosted by CNN and The Western Republican Leadership Conference at the The Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
There’s little question that circumstances have provided Perry with an opening that is almost too good to be true. Just as his inexplicable flirtation with birtherism raised further questions about his readiness for primetime — and earned him our “Worst Week in Washington” award — a path to a Perry comeback has presented itself.

To wit:

* Allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain have surfaced that not only changed the focus of the news media in an instant but also threatened to derail Perry’s main competition for the anti-Romney slot.

* The Perry money machine — both his campaign and his super PAC — has begun to assert itself, spending heavily in Iowa and South Carolina with ads that paint him as a proven conservative leader.

* Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, another potential Iowa impediment to the re-rise of Perry, appears to be adrift. Her support in the latest Des Moines Register poll dropped drastically — 22 percent in late June, 8 percent now — and her campaign is fighting off talk that she should drop out of the race.

Add those three things together and it becomes clear that Perry will almost certainly not get a better chance than this one to recoup much of the ground he lost with a listless and underwhelming campaign over the past few months.

“I think it’s his best chance start a move of his own making,” said Rob Stutzman, an unaligned Republican strategist, of Perry.

Even with the political seas parting for Perry at the moment, it’s no easy task to push him back to top-tier status.

The same Register poll that showed Cain rising and Bachmann sinking in Iowa pegged Perry’s support at just seven percent — tied with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for fifth place.

And, a CNN/Time poll in South Carolina put Perry in fourth place in the state behind Romney, Cain and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

Perry will almost certainly get a bump in Iowa and South Carolina from spending on biographical ads — “His dad was a tenant farmer...His wife a nurse” etc — that introduce (or re-introduce) him to voters in a very positive light.

With Romney still unsure of whether — and how aggressively — to play in Iowa and South Carolina, it’s likely that Perry will have the airwaves largely to himself for the foreseeable future since none of the other candidates have the sort of campaign cash to begin advertising so early.

But, ads will only get Perry so far, said Jan van Lohuizen who conducted polling for President Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

“News so dominates voter attention that ads don’t have that much of an impact, not like in a Senate or governor’s race,” said van Lohuizen. “So if Perry blows another debate, ads will do him no good.”

The challenge then for Perry is, in many ways, unchanging. His fortunes in the race have fallen based largely on his inability to put together a single truly strong debate performance over the past six weeks.

To rise again, he has to do better. And, he will have the chance. After initially suggesting he might not participate in future debates — not a good idea — Perry has reversed himself and will now be a part (at least) of the five(!) debates this month.

Assuming the Cain story lingers (and it certainly seems like it is going to), that Bachmann can’t find a way back to relevance and that Romney stays off the Iowa and South Carolina airwaves, Perry can use the month of November to make his move.

But a failure to perform in the coming quintet of debates could close the window of opportunity for Perry to stage a comeback.

Put simply: It’s a make or break moment for the Texas governor.

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