When Rick Perry entered the presidential race, he zoomed straight to the top of the polls and energized those voters looking for a practical alternative to Mitt Romney. Perry had a great resumé for a nominee — eleven years governing one of the most populous states in the country, job growth that defied a national malaise, and a track record of fighting federal regulation, especially in energy production. After the first four weeks of the campaign, though, Perry has not even begun to introduce himself to the American public, oddly choosing instead to engage on defense against everyone else in the campaign. And as for debate performances, calling Perry underwhelming would be charitable, thanks to a couple of bizarre attempts to play defense and attack other candidates on stage.
In my column for The Week, I lay out how Perry can grab momentum back and get a fresh start, in part by taking a lesson from Romney:
A candidate who enters a race late has to work harder at making that case in order to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack. That takes discipline and a campaign that understands strategy, which are both critical qualities on their own for voters to consider when choosing a contender for the difficult task of unseating a sitting president, since only three presidents in the past century have lost bids for a second term: Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H. W. Bush. (Gerald Ford lost his bid for his first full term.)
For Romney, that meant that he needed to change his strategy to engage — but only with Perry. Romney needed to push Perry into engaging with him on defense rather than focusing on defining himself in a positive manner, and maybe goad Perry into attacking Romney more than doing either. So far, that strategy has worked even better than Romney had to have hoped. Helped in no small part by the other candidates in the race, Romney has Perry reacting rather than acting, to the point where Perry’s second campaign video had nothing to do with Perry’s policy platform but trying to focus on edits between the first and second editions of Romney’s book. …
Fortunately for Perry, the moment has not entirely slipped away. A newCNN poll taken in the days after that debate shows Perry still leading the field, although with a slightly reduced margin over Romney. If Perry wants to reclaim the momentum, he needs to take a page from Romney and ignore the anklebiting from the also-rans on stage. Perry needs to make jobs and the economy the main topic of the debate, making the case for his leadership rather than attempting to rebut Romney’s arguments for his leadership. Instead of producing videos attacking Romney’s campaign book, Perry should be issuing one video after another highlighting Perry’s Texas record and how Perry wants to duplicate it on the national scale.
That will mean that Team Perry has to stop acting like a second-tier candidate and start acting like a frontrunner. Romney’s worst debating moments in both cycles have come when he’s had to get into defensive exchanges on stage, which is why Romney had wisely chosen to ignore attacks until he was no longer the frontrunner in the race. Perry has to copy that strategy and remain focused on positive explanations of his policies and principles, answering only the moderators on tough questions rather than the other candidates — especially from also-rans like Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann. All that does is elevate their status while forcing Perry to react, a debate quality that he clearly lacks and which on occasion makes him look incoherent.
On debate performances, Andrew Malcolm provides a little context:
The Texas governor had suffered through two debate performances that could charitably be described as mediocre. He hardly looked presidential on the stage or up to the executive expectations that had pushed him to the front of the pack in polls.
Now came new polling showing his prime competitor surging to the lead in the important first primary state of New Hampshire.
Was this the end of his short presidential campaign? Or the end of the beginning in a very long presidential campaign for the White House?
No, this isn’t the story of Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, which turns 45 days old today.
This is a cautionary tale about reading too much into the early debate showings of any party’s candidates, no matter how good or bad. Our esteemed and shall we say very veteran colleague Mark Barabak, calls our attention to a news story written almost 12 years ago, by him, as a matter of fact …
A bad start, then, is not the end of a campaign, especially when polls show Perry still in a front-runner position. But this bad start clearly calls for a change in strategy for Team Perry, and they don’t have a lot of time in which to make that change.