A week into his presidential nomination campaign, Gov. Rick Perry returned to Texas on a high note. His long-threatened entry into the GOP primary and his trip to key primary states dominated the headlines, while a Rasmussen poll had him leading perceived front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 29% to 18%. However, the reality is that he spent a week wandering from misstatement to campaign gaffe to overt base pandering.
The first big error came Aug. 13, the day of his announcement, when Perry called for Predator drones to be redeployed along the U.S.-Mexico border to collect "real-time information to help our law enforcement." In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been running General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drones along the Mexican and Canadian borders since the George W. Bush presidency. For Matt Glazer, executive director of Progress Texas, it is almost irrelevant whether Perry did or did not know that. The issue is his willingness to throw such comments out there just to please any particular audience. Take how Perry said gay marriage is a state's rights issue before he called for a national ban via constitutional amendment. Glazer said, "If Rick Perry is criticizing everything, does he stand for anything?"
That "pander first, never apologize" attitude returned on Aug. 15, when Perry told an Iowa crowd that the economic strategies of Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke (or, as Perry called him, "this guy") are "treasonous." Perry campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan tried to wash it all away, saying his boss was just "passionate" about federal spending, but a seemingly chance meeting two days later raised other fiscal policy questions. While leaving a Politics and Eggs breakfast in Bedford, N.H., Perry was approached by Bank of America's director of public policy James Mahoney. In what looked like an outtake from a Cold War spy flick, and seemingly oblivious to the C-SPAN boom mic overhead, Mahoney stage-whispered to Perry: "Bank of America. We'll help you out."
National observers also gained insight into Perry's take on science Aug. 18, in Portsmouth, N.H., when he called evolution "a theory that's out there; it's got some gaps in it." Later, he belittled the idea of man-made climate change and told a New Hampshire audience that "there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data."
Spotting an opening from the center, former Utah governor and fellow presidential wannabe Jon Huntsman grabbed his first headlines in weeks when he tweeted: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
Not that Perry is bothered about the political center. The whole tenor of his campaign has been the polar opposite of the George W. Bush primary campaign in 2000, when Texas Democrats cheerfully posed with the White House hopeful. Now they are paying close attention to blatant evangelical pandering, like Perry's prayer event, the Response, and how sponsoring group American Family Association quickly turned it into a get-out-the-vote operation. While the Response was publicized as being nonpolitical, last week AFA founder Don Wildmon used its mailing list to publicize Champion the Vote, "a friend of AFA whose mission is to mobilize 5 million unregistered conservative Christians."
Not that all "values voters" are in the Perry camp. Longtime Ron Paul supporter Robert Morrow put old rumors about Perry's sexuality on the national map when he took out a full page ad in last week's Chronicle (see "Point Austin"). Within a day, his request for strippers, escorts, or any "young hottie" with dirt on Perry's personal life had been picked up by Salon, the Huffington Post, and The Washington Post. Morrow claims that Perry is a sexual and moral hypocrite; Perry's camp fired back quickly, handing reporters what is known in campaign circles as an opposition research file on Morrow, painting him as a conspiracy crank. Undeterred, Morrow's reply was typically blunt: "The Perry campaign can go to hell," he said, before calling Perry "a pink cowboy leading a parade of extremist preachers and militaristic neocons."
Aside from the attack on Morrow, the response to all these headline events has been vintage Perry: ignore any criticism and move on to the next photo opportunity. For Glazer, that shows a lack of message discipline and stirs up the specter of the equally disorganized McCain-Palin 2008 campaign. "They are moving from national security to entitlement to border security," he said. "It's a new issue every six hours, and they seem to get it wrong, or they seem to just not know the facts."
The one area of consistency has been Perry's claim that Texas leads the nation in job creation. That means that what is bad for the Perry campaign is also bad for Texas. On Aug. 19, the latest seasonally adjusted unemployment numbers were released: Even as the national rate fell from 9.2% in June to 9.1% in July, unemployment in Texas rose from 8.2% to 8.4%. Perry's toughest questions may not be about misspeaking or base pandering but why Texas unemployment is at a 24-year high.
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