I previously reported on a letter that Texas Gov. Rick Perry co-wrote with then-West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. In the wake of the financial meltdown, Congress was debating the $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP). On Oct. 1, 2008, Perry and Manchin sent a letter, which as the Austin American-Statesman reported, stated, “We strongly urge Congress to leave partisanship at the door and pass an economic recovery package. . . . If Congress does not act soon, the situation will grow appreciably worse.” It didn’t explicitly mention TARP. But this was certainly the topic of the day.

In a 2010 gubernatorial debate against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) Perry insisted it was a message to cut spending. But that wasn’t remotely at issue, and in fact the letter came three days after TARP failed to pass the House. The president, the Fed chairman and GOP congressional leadership were in a panic. On the day a vote was scheduled in the Senate the Perry-Manchin letter arrived. The Fort Worth Star Telegram proclaimed: “Perry joins with Democrat to push for bailout.” The letter didn’t mention spending cuts, which was the last thing on the agenda in the midst of a financial collapse.

Perry caused a stir Saturday when he told a woman in Iowa that she was wrong about his supporting TARP legislation:

On this one he’s getting a bit of cover from Manchin, who is up for reelection and sure doesn’t want to be seen supporting TARP, either. His spokeswoman Emily Bittner e-mailed me, “The letter wasn’t specifically about TARP.” She then referred me to a written statement by Manchin: “My former colleague Governor Perry and I worked across party lines in 2008 to sign this letter on behalf of our respective organizations for one reason: to encourage Congress to put politics aside and move this country forward. Our message holds just as true today as it did then. At times of crisis, Congress needs to stop playing politics and come together around common-sense solutions for our great nation. Now, more than ever, Congress needs to focus on fixing problems, which is why I came to Washington. To me, it’s very simple. Our economic and fiscal problems aren’t red problems or blue problems; they’re red, white and blue — and the solutions should be, too.” Bittner did not respond to my question asking whether TARP wasn’t the only item under consideration then.

Perry’s opponents are not so accommodating when it comes to Perry’s position on TARP. Tim Miller, spokesman for Jon Huntsman, snarks: “Governor Perry’s pandering is becoming downright Romneyesque.” He continues, “Voters are looking for someone who they can trust to stand by their record and deliver on what they promise.”

Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for Rick Santorum, had this reaction for Ben Smith: “It’s pretty clear that the more real conservatives take a real look at Rick Perry — there’s a real problem. Conservatives are finding it tough to overlook Perry’s past positions giving special tuition rates for illegal aliens, his refusal to build a border fence, trampling parental rights with executive orders and his support of gay marriage at the state level; heck, his support of Hillarycare and TARP are the least of his problems.”

Gidley is partially right. The totality of these issues plus Perry’s book “Fed Up!” provide opponents with two lines of attack.

One is that Perry has been playing the role of conservative to the hilt, but governing and acting in an unprincipled fashion to advance his personal political benefit. His close friend Mike Toomey ( a Merck lobbyist) stood to gain, considerably from a mandatory human papillomavirus vaccination program, so Perry rammed it through with an executive order. He wanted to ride the Tea Party wave, but he took federal bailout money and perpetuated a very-un-Tea-Party-like system of cronyism in Texas. He wrote an extreme book when it was time to impress the Tea Partyers, but now he’s trying to slowly back away from the most untenable positions (e.g., sending Social Security to the states). This boils down to the “he’s like every other pol” argument.

The other effort here is to communicate to ideologically motivated Tea Partyers as well as reform-minded mainstream conservatives that this is someone whose judgment is poor and whose attachment to conservative ideology is a marriage of convenience. When it was good to be a Democrat in Texas, he supported Al Gore. When it was good to ingratiate himself with Hillary Clinton, he did (when fellow conservatives went to the barricades). When he was a 10th Amendment advocate, he railed against federal tort reform; as a candidate for president he now wants to go national with this idea. This boils down to the “he’ll betray you when it’s convenient” argument.

On TARP, Perry has some cover, but the issues that feed both these narratives are piling up. Perry ran out of his basic material in the first week of his campaign (Texas created a lot of jobs, he’s against taxes and regulation). Since then he’s been playing defense.

The way to get out of the defensive crouch, I think, is twofold. First, go on the offense with an agenda-rich campaign. And second, put to bed (if he can) some of these issues. That would require some mea culpas (he screwed up in not opposing Hillarycare, a lot of the stuff in his book is for shock value, etc.). The question remains whether he is capable of or willing to do these things. But he better decide fast: The next debate is Thursday.