Kudos to Rick Perry’s campaign team: the birther gambit was smart politics. Perry raised questions about Barack Obama’s legitimacy over the weekend just before he rolled out his new tax plan, and is now retreating from his flirtation with that particular fringe, saying that he was just joking. Deliberate or not, it was a smart strategy that fit nicely with Perry’s oddball situation in the race for the GOP nomination. Yes, he took a hammering from liberals, and even a few conservatives, but ultimately that will help more than it will hurt.

Perry’s problem is an unusual one. By most objective measures, including fundraising, endorsements, the quality of his campaign operations, and perhaps even the professionalism of his policy program, he’s in a very solid second place in the Republican race, behind only a frontrunner who many in the party may not be willing to accept as their nominee. But thanks to a series of awful debate performances, a couple of serious gaffes (including a major one on the hot-button issue of immigration), and the goofy way that the media and rank-and-file Republicans are handling the contest so far, he’s fallen so far back in the polls that many have written him off. That’s dangerous; no matter how well the rest of his campaign goes, if the press doesn’t take him seriously he won’t get coverage, and his task of consolidating anti-Romney votes may be impossible.

So Perry’s big task over the next few weeks has been to convince reporters — and any Republican actors who don’t realize it — that he’s Not Dead Yet. Mostly, that means publicity. Thus a wild “flat” tax plan. But we all know that policy isn’t enough to get either Republican voters or the press interested. A good fight helps (and Perry tried to supply that by attacking Romney in the last debate), but freak show stuff trumps, as it were, everything. So a few days of birther questions returned the focus to the Texas governor ... just as he was ready to take advantage of the attention by rolling out his tax plan.

I have no idea whether Perry will end up capturing the nomination or not; it probably depends more on whether Republican party actors and ultimately Republican primary voters are willing to accept Romney than on anything Perry does. If Perry is going to be the main alternative to Romney at the end of the day, which is his obvious objective, he desperately needs publicity. If the cost of that publicity is taking a pounding from liberals over the birther issue — something Republican primary voters won’t care about — that’s well worth it for him.