The New Tony Sanchez

Perry's presidential aspirations dying with a whimper, not a bang

Rick Perry: Singing songs from 'The Downward Spiral'
Rick Perry: Singing songs from 'The Downward Spiral' (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Back in 2002, gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez was the darling of the Democrats: A wealthy, amiable Hispanic businessman who was supposed to take out Gov. Rick Perry. Then he got under the first spotlight and adopted a 'deer in the headlights' pose from which he never emerged. Perry did the same thing at last night's GOP presidential debate.

What may be most shocking for Perry supporters is how bloodless the whole affair was. If a candidate is measured by how hard his opponents fight him, then Governor Goodhair is two inches tall. For all the sturm und drang that he was supposed to wield, last night he was sidelined.

Here's the big factor: This was the economic debate. The crowd gathered at Dartmouth College for the Washington Post/Bloomberg News event were, if the Perry rhetoric was right, going to be wowed by tales of the Texas economic miracle. Instead, they got former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shining his (comparatively) moderate pro-business, anti-regulation positions, even going so far as to risk a case for bailouts. After that, they got pizza mogul Herman Cain making his case for his '9-9-9' regressive tax system that would hit poor people harder while still leaving a hole in the coffers. Former Utah governor John Huntsman, to date a classic also-ran, raised his profile a bit with some solid one-liners. Even ex-Senator Rick Santorum sensed some blood in the water, gloating that "Pennsylvania is the gas capital of the world right now, not Texas."

And Perry, blinking on the bleachers, threw out some platitudes about Paint Creek and waited patiently for his turn.

It was clear how badly he had done. In the Bloomberg post-game analysis, he was declared the night's big loser. Jonathon Martin at Politico called him "absent from much of evening’s back-and-forth," while 538.com's Nate Silver wrote for the New York Times that "his demeanor crossed the line from subdued to soporific, with meandering answers that recalled Sarah Palin’s struggles in media interviews throughout 2008."

The debate was part of one, long, lousy day for Perry. New Jersey governor Chris Christie had already jumped on the Romney train with a major endorsement, while Perry permanently signed away Utah with the whole "Mormonism is a cult" debacle. Even the Texas Aggie Conservatives laid into him, demanding that he call a special session to end in-state tuition for undocumented students. To finish the night off, Perry then shot himself in what was left off his bullet-riddled feet by telling Dartmouth students that the Revolutionary War was fought in the 16th century.

This morning, there has almost been an air of apology from both detractors and supporters. After all, Perry's implosion would bode ill for campaign fundraising in Texas. Republicans want a boost from having their governor at the top of the presidential ticket, while Democrats that have been quite happily boosting their coffers by campaigning against him.

He still could recover: After all, it is three months until the Iowa primary, and there is a lot of time still to go. There is a lot of talk about how he could pull a major victory out of the bag in the Oct. 18 Nevada debate, or maybe there can be some miraculous stump speech that could reinvigorate his campaign.

Such a revival is not impossible. In October 2009 eventual nominee Sen. John McCain was trailing both former New York Mayor Rudi Guilliani and former Senator Fred Thompson. However, Perry's numbers have been dropping consistently since he got in the race (now polling a hefty 4% in New Hampshire and 11% in Iowa), and this is not his first debate disaster. Only two weeks ago, Britt Hume on Fox News Sunday said that Perry "really did throw up all over himself in the debate, at a time when he needed to raise his game."

The truth of the matter may have been revealed over at Republican blog FrumForum.com. In his Sept. 30 op-ed "Perry: Media Bubble Boy", Mark R. Yzaguirre said that Perry "hasn’t faced direct, sharp questioning for much of his political career and he’s functioned in something of a bubble for quite some time. Right now, his policies and background are being scrutinized to a degree he isn’t accustomed to." After all, this is the guy that pulled a No Show Jones on debating with Bill White in 2008 and got away with it. As for the idea that he will suddenly, mystically become a great debater and stump speech maker, there is nothing in the last ten years of campaigning to back that theory.

Putting it bluntly: Rick Perry is not stupid. But he does seem to lack the kind of intellectual curiosity and agility that running outside of the convivial atmosphere of Texas politics requires.

One can only wonder what kind of scurrying is happening at Perry campaign HQ right now. Their brilliant strategy going into last night was for their candidate to get more sleep and to brings yet another long-time member of his kitchen cabinet, Transportation Commissioner Deirdre Delisi, as his full-time policy and strategy director. With two lousy debates under their belt, the big question may be whether they just backed the wrong horse or if, like Perry himself, his staff is not ready for national prime time either.

And that may be the big takeaway from last night: That Republican primary voters may think Perry has a great on-paper resume but, under the national spotlight, he's just not that good an interviewee. Just like Tony Sanchez.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Rick Perry, The Perry Trap, Election 2012, 2012 Primaries, Washington Post, Bloomberg News, New Hampshire, Darthmouth College, Mitt Romney, John Huntsman, Herman Cain, 9/9/9, Debate, Econdebate, Econodebate

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