Rick Perry’s campaign team, undaunted by plunge in polls, readies phase two

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent October 15, 2011

For cheap symbolism, Rick Perry’s campaign headquarters a few blocks south of the state Capitol offers everything one could hope for, from front doors that construction workers were upgrading Friday to the old bank vault that houses two of the Texas governor’s most senior advisers.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

The doors might symbolize a presidential campaign still in the making, barely two months old but already seen by its critics as needing a makeover. To Perry’s supporters, the old concrete vault could represent one of the campaign’s biggest assets, the $17 million Perry brought in during his first 49 days as a candidate. To his doubters, the vault could be seen as evidence of a campaign that has fallen short of early expectations and is already operating from a bunker.

Dave Carney, the campaign’s chief strategist, has nothing but disdain for the negative analysis of Perry’s prospects that has been emanating from the political commentariat back east, but he knows it is up to Perry and the campaign to change it.

“The media narrative is not helpful,” he said Friday afternoon. “But the reality is that message matters more than chatter. We need to get our message out there, and we need to do better in every aspect.”

The narrative he refers to says that Perry peaked shortly after he got into the race and has been such a disappointment in debates that he will have trouble reviving his hopes for the Republican nomination. Carney isn’t buying it. “We are right on plan where we planned to be,” he said.

What he means is that in terms of money raised, organizations in place in early-voting states and policy proposals in the pipeline, everything is on track. Perry’s advisers believe that the governor’s performance in last week’s Washington Post-Bloomberg debate in New Hampshire was more than passable. His poll numbers might have have fallen dramatically, but advisers contend that current polls have little meaning. “They are Polaroids,” Carney said.

On Thursday, Perry’s wife, Anita, said her husband has been “brutalized” by his opponents and the media, in part because of his Christian faith. It has been, she said, “a rough month.” In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Perry said he didn’t disagree with his wife.

Campaign officials say Anita Perry was honestly voicing her feelings about her husband’s treatment, but they do not suggest that what he has been through has been unfair or out of bounds.

“If someone can’t take a punch, this is not the right business,” campaign press secretary Mark Miner said. “He’s proven he can take them and throw them. This is part of the process. Debates are part of the process. Retail campaigning is part of the process. Fundraising is part of the process. And sometimes, taking a punch is part of the process. You move forward.”

Some things have surprised campaign officials. One is that Perry has come under such fire on immigration. Advisers had assumed that Perry’s record dealing with border issues would satisfy immigration hard-liners. But they underestimated how his support for a Texas law that provides in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants — if they have lived in the state three years and graduated from high school — would undermine his conservative bona fides.

“It is at least interesting that a 10-year-old law that passed with little opposition and treats Texas residents equally would be an issue,” said Ray Sullivan, the campaign communications director.

Perry’s campaign has struggled because of its late start, which has forced officials to juggle priorities. A series of debates in the first two months of the governor’s candidacy not only showed a sometimes ill-prepared contender but also ate up precious time that could have been spent on fundraising or retail campaigning in Iowa or South Carolina.

On Friday, Perry delivered his first major policy speech, outlining a series of executive actions that would accelerate exploration and production of domestic energy resources and create, he said, more than a million jobs. The next speech, scheduled for Oct. 25, will outline his plan for the economy, which has been a big hole in his message.

After the economic speech, Perry will tackle border security, foreign policy and government reform. The package of speeches, campaign officials hope, will do what the debates have not done, which is to flesh out Perry’s profile as a conservative governor with the ideas and leadership qualities to be president.

Also coming soon will be Perry’s first television ads. His past campaigns have featured tough attacks on opponents, but his presidential TV commercials might start on a more positive note, advisers said. “We’re introducing the governor to folks who don’t have a clue to his record, his background and what he wants to accomplish,” Carney said.

The betting among Republican strategists is that Perry’s ads will quickly take aim at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. But Carney offered a cautionary note. “This whole idea that you have to attack Mitt Romney — that’s pedestrian thinking,” he said. If that view prevails, the attacks could be left to Perry’s “super PAC.”

Right now, Perry appears reluctant to go after businessman Herman Cain, who has eclipsed him in national polls. Campaign officials won’t say directly but seem to hope that Cain could well fall of his own weight, as others have done this year. If that happens, Cain’s supporters are ones Perry wants and needs to win the nomination. Thus, there’s no need to antagonize them now.

Given the turbulence, Perry campaign officials have their talking points down pat: Romney hasn’t been able to expand his support; Perry excels at retail campaigning; GOP voters will eventually see him as the conservative alternative; nothing has happened yet to prevent Perry from winning. As Miner put it: “This race isn’t going to be decided by pundits in a television studio in Washington. It will be decided by people who live on Main Street in the states.”

After Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas, there will be a hiatus in candidate forums. Perry will then be free to get back to what his advisers believe he does best. He will have an opportunity to lay out his plans and show where he wants to take the country. He will have the chance to put his money into action through TV commercials that his advisers believe have always been the key to his success as a candidate.

In other words, the campaign that Perry’s team hoped to run from the beginning will be able to start in earnest. He may have dug himself a deep hole with the four debates he’s been in so far, but here in Austin, there is more defiant determination than pessimism in the concrete-walled command post.

balzd@washpost.com

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