Welcome to Rick Perry 2.0.
The Republican Texas governor is retooling his presidential campaign, shuffling staff and touting a bold but controversial new tax plan, hoping to rebound from a recent plunge in the polls.
The Perry campaign announced Monday that it has hired several veteran operatives with national campaign experience to augment a team that had been dominated by people who had long work histories with Perry in Texas.
The most notable of the new hires is senior adviser Joe Allbaugh, who was campaign manager for George W. Bush’s presidential run in 2000.
The personnel moves came as Perry prepared to give a speech Tuesday in South Carolina in which he will announce a proposal for a national flat tax to replace the current income tax system. Perry, who has largely avoided interviews in his first two months as a candidate, will hold a news conference after the speech in Columbia. Meanwhile, his campaign will start running television commercials this week in Iowa in an effort to reintroduce Perry to Republicans in the first state that will vote in the primary process.
The shifts come after a series of lackluster debate performances that left Perry trailing not only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney but also businessman Herman Cain in polls. Romney is now considered the favorite in the race, while Cain has grabbed a chunk of the anti-Romney vote that was expected to gravitate to Perry.
Perry’s embrace of the flat tax could help him win back conservatives who like Cain’s proposal to overhaul the tax code and replace it with his “9-9-9” plan, which includes a national sales tax.
Perry aides said the new hires were not a reaction to criticism from fellow Republicans who say the candidate has struggled to present a vision for the country beyond repeatedly citing his record in Texas. While dismissing debates as a “fraction” of the nomination process, the aides emphasized Perry’s advantages: a record of winning tough campaigns in Texas, the unwillingness of many grass-roots Republicans to back Romney and the $15 million that Perry has left in campaign funds, more than nearly all of his rivals.
The aides portrayed the new advisers and the speech as simply a natural evolution in the campaign, even as other Republicans said the hires were a clear sign that Perry’s Austin-based operation had not succeeded over the past two months.
“These experienced advisors will play an instrumental role in helping me share my vision to get America working again with the nation, and I am proud to have their support as our campaign expands,” Perry said in a statement announcing the hires.
But several Perry supporters, who did not want to criticize the campaign publicly, say the governor, whose candidacy was announced with great fanfare in August, must seize what they believe may be one of his last opportunities to reverse his fortunes.
They hope that his speech on Tuesday will address his most glaring vulnerability: a perception that he lacks intellectual heft.
“You’ve got to have command of the issues,” said one GOP donor who backs Perry.
Tony Fabrizio, who will do polling for Perry, was a top aide to then-Sen. Robert J. Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, as was Nelson Warfield, who will work on commercials. Another ad man new to the team, Curt Anderson, worked on Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
Allbaugh’s hiring was the most surprising. While sources said that he and Perry’s team had long discussed him joining the operation, the Bush and Perry clans are known for having a rivalry in Texas. Allbaugh was one of the members of the “Iron Triangle” — along with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes — that led Bush’s campaign in 2000, and Rove has been openly critical of Perry’s campaign at times.
“It has been a very tight circle, and they need to expand it,” said one fundraiser. “You’ve got to have people with broader opinions and broader experiences.”
But other Republicans say staff changes often don’t help campaigns to rebound.
“I don’t see a lot of evidence in the history of campaigns that when you do that, it increases your odds of success,” said Mattthew Dowd, who advised Bush’s campaigns in 2000 and 2004. “When you go from a close-knit group to people who are essentially hired guns — every time I’ve seen it happen, it’s never turned out well.”
Perry supporters were heartened, they said, by his stronger — though still not flawless — performance in a debate in Las Vegas last week. And they say that, with Cain now facing strong criticism from conservatives on his tax plan and his comments that abortion should be a personal choice, Perry essentially has a second chance to make a first impression.
“The Perry team is seeing a rebound,” said one backer.
But Perry may have a long way to go before he can reverse the slide that began at a debate in Orlando last month, when he said that people who didn’t agree with his pro-immigration positions were heartless.
And Perry, who effectively accused Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke of treason earlier in his candidacy, may face criticism over his latest controversial remark.
In an interview in Parade magazine published Sunday, he was asked about the persistent, inaccurate belief among some conservatives that President Obama was not born in the United States. “I don’t know,” Perry responded, when asked whether he trusted that the birth certificate Obama released this year was authentic. He then noted, “I had dinner with Donald Trump the other night.”
“He doesn’t think it’s real,” Perry said of the businessman.
Staff writers Chris Cillizza and Philip Rucker contributed to this report.