Rick Perry, the Iowa x-factor

at 02:01 PM ET, 12/09/2011


Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks to supporters on the U.S.S. Yorktown, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Alice Keeney)
Remember Rick Perry?

The Texas governor has largely played a bit part (Lemonheads reference!) in the presidential race in the six weeks (or so) since his disastrous “oops” moment in a nationally televised debate. But he may now be poised to play a bigger role in the contest — if not as a primary contender than as a spoiler.

Perry has two things that make him an x-factor in the final weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses: money and nothing to lose.

Witness Perry’s day on Thursday.

First his campaign launched an ad hammering former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and, to a slightly lesser extent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for supporting an individual mandate in health care.

“We don’t want government-mandated health care,” the narrator of the ad says. “Yet, Newt Gingrich supports it, and Mitt Romney, he put it into law in Massachusetts.”

Then, at an appearance in South Carolina, Perry went there when asked about Gingrich’s three marriages.

“I made an oath to God when I married my wife,” he said. “I think it’s an important issue. But the American people will figure out these issues and work their way through them.” Oomph.

Unlike most of the other candidates in the field — Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, we are looking at you — Perry has demonstrated that he can and will put his money where his mouth is.

Perry not only ended September with $15 million in the bank (yes, we know he withheld lots of expenses until after the filing deadline) but also has a well-organized super PAC — “Make Us Great Again” — working for him.

According to NBC News, Perry and his super PAC have spent $4.4 million in Iowa to date, a remarkable sum well in excess of what any other candidates has disbursed.

The critical question for Perry is who he shoots at: Gingrich, Romney or both?

When he entered the race back in August — it seems like a millennium ago — Perry was very clearly positioning himself as the anti-Romney in the race, a straight-talking, conservative outsider.

But, that mantle has, oddly enough, fallen to Gingrich over the past month or so. And that movement suggests Perry would be strategically better off to focus his ads on Gingrich.

Attacking Romney makes less obvious sense unless Perry wants to try to use the former Massachusetts governor as a foil to show undecided voters how conservative he truly is.

Trying to lump Romney and Gingrich together as Perry did in his first negative ad in Iowa has appeal — two birds with one stone! — but that sort of dual-messaging is somewhat difficult to pull off, particularly since the caucuses are now only 25 days.

Who Perry and his strategy team decide to focus the thrust of their attacks on — and we may get some indication at tomorrow night’s debate in Iowa — could have a major impact on the Iowa outcome.

If Perry does choose to primarily bash Gingrich, the combined throw-weight of his ads and the negative Newt commercials to come from the pro-Romney “Restore our Future” super PAC could make life very difficult for the former Speaker.

If Perry turns on Romney, on the other hand, it would make an already uphill path to victory for the former Massachusetts governor in the state all that much more difficult.

There is one other scenario for Perry in Iowa — and it involves him becoming not a spoiler for Gingrich or Romney but rather a major contender in his own right.

There is some chatter in Republican political circles that Perry’s ads are (finally) starting to take hold in the Hawkeye State and that his support is beginning to bump upward.

No polling has begun to pick up on that movement just yet — he placed fourth with 11 percent among likely Iowa caucus-goers in a poll sponsored by the Washington Post and ABC News — but keep an eye on the numbers over the next week to ten days to see if Perry can make the difficult leap from spoiler to contender in Iowa.

Either way, Perry looks likely to have a say in who punches a winning ticket out of Iowa.

 
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