A mere 159 days later, it was all over. Perry dropped out of the race and endorsed Newt Gingrich before the South Carolina primary. (Gingrich won that primary.) In truth, Perry really hadn't been relevant in the race since at least November 2011 when he failed to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate if elected president. From the day he announced (Aug. 13) to the day of that "oops" moment (Nov. 9) less than three months passed. And in those two months Perry went from top tier player to also ran — thanks in large part to a debate-fueled perception that he was simply not up to the job. If the most basic threshold every presidential candidate needs to clear in voters' minds is "Would I trust this person running the country?" Perry came up way short — in a very short period of time.
For most candidates who crash and burn in a presidential race, once is more than enough. Wes Clark didn't run for president again after his disastrous 2004 campaign. Neither did Howard Dean. Fred Thompson, whose downward trajectory was similar to that of Perry, never seriously considered making a re-run after he failed in 2008.
That's what makes what Perry is trying to do so interesting — and unique. Perry, after enduring the equivalent of a 59-0 beating in football, seems entirely undaunted by the prospect of stepping back on the field. He told Rucker that while other past losers would “scurry off to the quietness and the comfort of some obscure place," he "wasn’t interested in doing that" because "this country is begging for leadership.” What Perry is doing is asking the Republican primary electorate to erase the last campaign from their minds entirely and start fresh with him this time around. It's a sort of an "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" strategy.
There is no question in my mind that the Perry most Republican voters met in the last campaign was not the same politician who had come to dominate Texas politics over the past decade. We know now that Perry was badly bothered by the lingering effects of back surgery he underwent in July 2011 — a month before he got into the race. And, as he acknowledged to Rucker, Perry was also overly confident in his ability to scale up from a detailed knowledge of Texas issues to a deep knowledge of national ones.
The best — and most authentic — Perry was almost never on display during the campaign. My first glimpse of it actually came after the campaign ended when I saw "Caucus," director A.J. Schnack's terrific documentary of the Iowa Republican caucus campaign. Perry isn't prominently featured in the doc but there is a single scene where he is moving through a room packed with military vets. Perry stops next to one, an elderly veteran, stoops down and spends upwards of two minutes listening — genuinely listening, not political listening — to the man. He then shakes the man's hand and thanks him for his service. It's a moving moment and one that left me wondering: "Where was THAT Rick Perry in the campaign?"
So, yes, Perry has more to show voters than they saw in 2012. The question is whether they are willing to look.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted late last month suggested that the answer to that question is "no" — at least right now. Just 4 percent of Republican respondents named Perry as their preferred 2016 candidate, good for 10th place in the field. A late October Fox News Channel poll in Iowa gave Perry 3 percent in the 2016 caucuses — 11th place. (CAVEAT: Polls in a race so far away tend to be relatively meaningless. And, even if you want to analyze the results, the field is so bunched (and unknown) that adding just a few points to his totals would move him up into the top five of potential candidates.)
None of those data points are determinative as to whether Republican voters are willing to give Perry another chance in 2016. What is apparent, however, is that Perry has work to do to even earn the possibility of a second look.
The very fact that Perry is willing to try is audacious. If he is able to succeed, it would be unprecedented in our modern era of politics.