Rick Perry struggles to keep campaign alive after flub

With a debate gaffe blasting through his presidential candidacy, Rick Perry turned from seeking resurgence to trying to avoid extinction.

His fundraisers have begun to abandon the Texas governor. Republican strategists are offering eulogies. Perry, who has avoided interviews throughout his two-month campaign, signaled the depth of his desperation by talking almost nonstop to national media outlets Thursday, ending with a stop on CBS’ Letterman show to mock his mistake. Few thought it would help.

The candidate who had shot to the top of the polls as the alternative to Mitt Romney only to plummet earthward from a series of mistakes, now faces multiple conundrums. The stakes for all future debates — the next is Saturday — loom as huge, and Perry acknowledges obvious shortcomings in that setting. His political fate rests on a win in Iowa, but he now faces competing pressures to camp out there and to travel the nation raising money.

“I think the Perry campaign is over. I regret saying that and I do not say it easily,” said one prominent Perry bundler, who spoke anonymously to preserve relations with the candidates and other Republicans. “I like him, I admire him … but the reality is he is consistently the weakest performer in these debates and does not, unfortunately, pass the test of presidential acceptability. Close your eyes and think of Rick Perry and Barack Obama on a debate platform, and I don’t think you have to say much more.”

Perry campaign staff attended what one official described as “an upbeat meeting” in the campaign’s Austin headquarters Thursday morning. “Everyone was reminded not to get distracted,” the official said. Some employees circulated emails from Perry supporters designed to fire up the base. But the buoyant message from Austin masked deep concern among some of the campaign’s most ardent allies.


The tumult stemmed from an exchange at Wednesday’s debate in Michigan. Perry said that once elected president he would eradicate three departments to shrink the federal government. After naming two — Education and Commerce — he drew a blank on the third. After an agonizing period of time, during which his rivals tried to help him out, a dazed-looking Perry finally gave up.

“I can’t,” Perry replied. “The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

(Later in the debate, he remembered the department — Energy — which governs an issue he talks about constantly at campaign events.)

The exchange was especially devastating because it reinforced growing perceptions among Republicans that Perry lacks the deftness and discipline required to serve in the Oval Office.

“It still makes my skin crawl, and I’ve watched it 37 times since last night. It was just an unbelievable mental collapse,” said Rich Galen, a veteran GOP strategist watching the primaries from the sidelines. “One of the things about being presidential is being able to react properly in a crisis.... For Perry last night that debate was a crisis mode. It was a big moment and he couldn’t do it. I don’t see how he comes back.”

A saving grace is Perry’s flush war chest, which will give him some money to attempt a resurrection — if he can convince his fundraisers to remain aboard.

“He’s still sitting on a mountain of cash, so he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. But if he doesn’t find a way to start looking and sounding more presidential and prepared for the job, he may as well return all that cash because it’s just going to be wasted,” said D. Todd Harris, a GOP strategist who also is neutral in the race.

On Thursday, Perry tried to contain the damage by jocularly casting his gaffe as an understandable, if unfortunate, human error.

“Anytime you’re standing up in front of how many million people we were and you have a loss of a train of thought, sure it impacts you. But the fact is, one error is not going to make or break a campaign,” he said on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

He said he would participate in Saturday’s debate — on foreign policy, a weak spot — but declined to commit to others.

Perry’s campaign had been sputtering even before the latest implosion. He entered the race with the resume of a formidable contender — a decadelong tenure governing a state that is a rare economic bright spot, and a folksy charm that plays well among voters in states such as Iowa. But after rising to front-runner status weeks after his campaign began, he has recently been mired in the single digits.

During previous debates, he called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and said those who disagreed with in-state college tuition rates for illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart.” While campaigning, he implied that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke was edging toward treason and would be dealt with violently in Texas. He suggested the American military get involved in Mexico’s drug war. After a supporter denigrated Mormonism — Romney’s faith — as a cult, Perry had to answer for it for days.

When he turned to substance — the rollout of his economic plan — Perry got in his own way by questioning whether President Obama was born in this country. Then he gave a bizarrely animated speech in New Hampshire that spurred questions about whether he was sober. (He said he was.)

Strategists and voters said that there had been another less visible, if equally dangerous, flaw: While trying to position himself as the conservative alternative to Romney, he has only rarely met with early-state voters, a circumstance all the more puzzling given his talent in such settings.

Two early-voting states — Iowa and South Carolina — ought to be perfect fits for the Texas governor given the concentration of conservative, religious voters who have never warmed to former Massachusetts Gov. Romney. But rather than make his case directly to those voters, Perry has sought out others less conducive for his bid. He has spent more time in moderate, secular New Hampshire than in South Carolina.

“Right now, it appears his strategy is to disqualify every other candidate and be the only one left standing, [but] he’s never sold himself as qualified to do the job,” said Doug Gross, a prominent GOP activist and Des Moines attorney who has not yet backed any candidate. “Fundamentally, he hasn’t been able to pass that first threshold: Can this guy be president? Are voters willing to turn over the keys to the nation to him?”

Perry’s campaign concedes that his late entry into the race has been costly, requiring him to juggle early-state campaign appearances, far-flung debates and national fundraising events simultaneously.

“As the last entry into the race, we had ground to make up,” spokesman Ray Sullivan said. “With the election date on the horizon, voters in these early primary states are going to see a lot more of Gov. Perry.”

His supporters say his only hope is to focus heavily on the early states like Iowa, where balloting begins Jan. 3.

“He has got to come to Iowa and meet every single caucusgoer,” said one dispirited Perry activist in Iowa who wasn’t sanctioned to speak for the campaign. “He’s got to build personal relationships with everybody and show his genuine side, and he’s going to have to make fun of himself.”

Perry spent three days in Iowa last week and has more trips planned later this month — a potential sign of recalibration. He began filling mailboxes this week with a multi-page brochure that describes his hardscrabble childhood on a farm, his military service, his family and his faith. (The first page bore a boyhood picture of Perry next to a horse, with words that winced after Wednesday’s flub: “What is this boy thinking?”)

More than ever before, Perry’s fate rests on his ability to close the sale.

“If Perry can get a message and get back on track and use his evangelical, conservative credentials to his benefit in Iowa — that changes everything if he has a good showing there,” said Don Sipple, a neutral GOP strategist who has worked in Texas politics. “But you have to say he’s putting rocks into his own knapsack for a very steep climb.”

Times staff writers Mark Barabak and Maeve Reston contributed to this report, as did Tom Hamburger and Melanie Mason in the Washington bureau.