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Rick Perry’s rough path back to relevance

at 06:30 AM ET, 11/11/2011

In the wake of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s brain freeze during a nationally televised presidential debate on Wednesday night, the Republican political class has divided — roughly — into two camps: those who argue that his campaign is over and those who believe he has a narrow window back to relevance.


Presidential candidate for the GOP nomination and Republican Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, speaks to New Englanders at the Politics and Eggs breakfast, in Bedford, N.H., in August. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Steve Schmidt, who managed the 2008 presidential campaign of Arizona Sen. John McCain, is in the former camp. “His campaign is effectively over,” said Schmidt. “This was not a singular episode. It is the grand finale in a ruinous series of public appearances which includes the bizarre New Hampshire speech.”

Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political director, sees a chance — albeit a narrow one — for Perry to find a way back. “His only option, at this point, is to convince primary voters that [former Massachusetts governor Mitt] Romney is not acceptable,” she said. “Perhaps he’ll have enough money to do that in a state or two, but it’s getting harder with each passing day.”

Another unaligned Republican strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly was even more blunt about Perry’s strategy going forward; “Like a wounded animal, I would expect him to attack,” the source said.

Perry spent much of Thursday trying to use humor to downplay the political sting of his 40-plus second stumble over the three federal agencies he would eliminate if elected president. (If you haven’t watched the clip — and there must be a few of you left in America — do it now.)

He read a top 10 list on “The Late Show with David Letterman” and bought banner ads on Google asking people what federal agency they’d like to forget.

Perry’s strategy is, to channel the 2008 presidential campaign for a moment, a classic case of trying to put lipstick on a pig. Humor alone won’t save him though.

There’s little question that Perry’s path to relevance is, of necessity, paved with some combination of luck and negative attacks.

First, he desperately needs something or someone to distract the political world from his gaffe — sort of like how his inability to name the three federal agencies has temporarily taken the heat off of businessman Herman Cain and the sexual harassment allegations swirling around him.

If the media glare doesn’t move off of Perry soon, it will compound the problem he created for himself. The gaffe will consume his campaign — in much the same way that former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was never able to move beyond his unwillingness to attack Romney on health care during a debate in New Hampshire in June. (Sidebar: Pawlenty’s gaffe doesn’t hold a candle to Perry’s problem.)

Assuming Perry can get a lucky break (or two), it still remains to be seen whether he can prosecute an extended and effective negative campaign against Romney, Cain or anyone else. And notably, Perry has shown himself to be a less-than-able attack dog in debates — perhaps the best venue for attacks.

While that strategy would have undoubtedly worked in early September when Perry was in a position of strength in polling, it’s far less certain of success now that he has dropped behind Romney and Cain — not to mention Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in some national surveys.

Given that, it’s uniquely possible that a flight of Perry attack ads would be dismissed by voters as a panic move by a desperate candidate. (Remember that the key to negative, er, “contrast” ads is that the person making the attack is seen as a credible messenger.)

The other x-factor in trying to sketch out a way back to relevance for Perry is money. He ended September with $15 million on the bank and has been spending relatively heavily on positive biographical ads introducing himself to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

It’s hard to see how Perry raises anywhere near that amount of money between Oct. 1 and the end of the year, meaning that he may have to start making decisions about where to spend — and on what — in the not-too-distant future.

Campaigns have been declared dead before only to come back. (Think McCain 2008, for one.) Politics is an unpredictable game and what looks certain today can be decidedly shaky tomorrow.

That said, Perry’s “oops” gaffe is a huge problem for a campaign that was already scuffling to find a path to the nomination.

Joint press conference for Cain accusers on hold: It looks as though Cain’s accusers may not hold a joint press conference after all.

Karen Kraushaar’s attorney says she will not appear at a press conference unless the two accusers who remain unnamed come forward and join her and the fourth accuser, Sharon Bialek.

The other two women have shown little interest in publicly accusing Cain, though, so the joint press conference now appears unlikely.

Florida poll shows Cain leading, Gingrich surging: A new Quinnipiac University poll of the Florida primary shows Cainstaying strong in first place, with a third candidate making a play for the top tier: Gingrich.

The poll has Cain at 27 percent, Romney at 21 percent, and the former House Speaker creeping up on Romney at 17 percent.

Previous Florida polling shows Cain and Romney neck and neck, so this poll actually suggests that Cain has made gains in spite of the controversy over sexual harassment allegations.

Two more polls in Ohio and Pennsylvania also show Cain and Romney leading the way, with Gingrich third (tied with former home-state senator Rick Santorum in the latter poll).

All three states are statistical ties in a general election matchup between Romney and President Obama.

Republicans win Virginia state Senate: Virginia state Sen. Edd Houck (D) conceded his race Thursday, meaning Republicans have secured a 20-20 tie in the Virginia state Senate and will control is by virtue of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s (R) tie-breaking vote.

Houck trailed by 225 votes and said the chances of a recount changing the result were too small.

Republicans now control all three statewide offices and both chambers of the state legislature in the Commonwealth.

The state Senate there was the last major undecided piece of Tuesday’s election nationwide.

Republicans also got some good news in Mississippi on Thursday, when a Democratic state senator switched parties to give them a 31-21 majority in a chamber they just took over a year ago (thanks to previous party-switchers).

Fixbits:

Gingrich gets his very own super PAC.

Cain says he’s been through hell.

Sarah Palin wants Attorney General Eric Holder out.

Recruiting continues to trouble Missouri Republicans, as they lose their top candidate in the lieutenant governor’s race.

The city of Billings, Mont., is urging Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) to drop his lawsuit against the city for its response to a wildfire on his property.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) draws an intra-party challenge from a state House member. Utah’s odd nominating process means incumbents are often vulnerable at the state party convention.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) is set to endorse former senator George Allen (R) for Senate on Friday.

Nevada state Sen. Barbara Cegavske (R) has entered the race for the state’s new 4th district, a Democratic-leaning seat.

Must-reads:

Gingrich campaign plays defense on ties to Freddie Mac” — Alex More, MSNBC

Cain was known for casual style with staff at association” — Krissah Thompson, Washington Post

As others fall, Gingrich may challenge Romney’s hold on GOP field” — AP

 
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