Even as Michele Bachmann was withdrawing from the presidential race, Texas governor Rick Perry – reeling from a fifth-place finish in Iowa, but perhaps sensing opportunity in Bachmann’s departure – announced via Twitter, “And the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State… Here we come, South Carolina!”
It looks like Perry’s announced decision to return to Texas and “re-assess” his campaign might have resulted in one of the rare re-assessments that keeps the campaign alive. That would be unusual enough to grab him some headlines. There was some early confusion about whether Perry himself issued the tally-ho Tweet, but Perry campaign manager Joe Allbaugh told Politico that his candidate has indeed decided to stay in the race.
Strategically, Perry can hope that a newly energized and very angry Newt Gingrich, last seen coming off the ropes of a fourth-place Iowa finish and stuffing horseshoes into his boxing gloves, will do serious damage to Mitt Romney and create an opening for him. Bachmann supporters are looking for a new home, and Huntsman supporters* will be right behind them.
It has been interesting to watch those who admire Perry’s record as governor of Texas, and recall his spectacular late entry into the race, wonder how his campaign could have stumbled so badly. There are internal and organization reasons, but a big part of the problem is obvious: he really messed up in the debates, first by picking a fight with the Republican base when he described opposition to in-state tuition for illegal aliens as “heartless,” then by a series of public stumbles that culminated with the legendary “Third Department of Doom” brain freeze.
The GOP base knows it’s in for a tough fight in 2012, and is troubled by recurring nightmares of a clumsy candidate getting torn to shreds by a pack of media wolves and late-night comedy hyenas. This is not an irrational fear. A lot of moderate, disaffected, and low-information voters are influenced by the undertow of mass media and popular culture. A candidate can survive becoming the media’s enemy – the best of them can play hostile reporters like a violin – but it’s tough for any of the candidate’s other virtues to shine around a total eclipse of derision.
In general, and especially during attempts to unseat an incumbent, the Republican base is concerned with a candidate’s perceived ability to reach the White House, as well as what he’s likely to do when he arrives. (And they are concerned about both, or else Mitt Romney wouldn’t have his face pressed up against that 25% glass ceiling.)
It’s going to be tough work for Perry to get around this. He’ll need a few grand-slam debate performances, which is why it’s so important for him to get on the stage before South Carolina. (He was tactically astute to pass on New Hampshire, where he was unlikely to forge a comeback.) A reduced field is, to some extent, a reset field. Voters make new calculations based on perceptions of electability and endurance. Rick Perry v2.0 needs to be an awesome upgrade to take advantage of this. That’s good news, because Republicans would love to have an awesome candidate.
* both of them.