Welcome to Campaign Finance Reform Nirvana, where presidential bids never die — they just enter limbo while supporters run a PAC. Rick Perry’s official campaign has stopped meeting payroll, in the past a sign of doom for a presidential contender. However, the super-PAC dedicated to Perry’s cause still has plenty of cash and hopes to re-stoke the fire:

Former Texas governor Rick Perry’s presidential campaign is no longer paying its staff because fundraising has dried up, while his cash-flush allied super PAC is preparing to expand its political operation to compensate for the campaign’s shortcomings, campaign and super PAC officials and other Republicans familiar with the operation said late Monday.

Perry, who has struggled to gain traction in his second presidential run, has stopped paying his staff at the national headquarters in Austin as well as in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, according to a Republican familiar with the Perry campaign who demanded anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Perry campaign manager Jeff Miller told staff last Friday, the day after the first Republican presidential debate, that they would no longer be paid and are free to look for other jobs — and, so far at least, most aides have stuck with Perry — according to this Republican.

“As the campaign moves along, tough decisions have to be made in respect to both monetary and time related resources,” Miller said in a statement. “Governor Perry remains committed to competing in the early states and will continue to have a strong presence in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.”

In the old days, when campaign contributions flowed to candidates, that would spell the end of the road for a presidential hopeful. It still might, although Team Perry plan to soldier on for a while. If their staff doesn’t mind working on a volunteer basis — and they seem to be sticking around for now — they can continue to operate. The lack of funds may ground Perry in Iowa for a while, but he’s already heavily invested there and it’s probably his best shot to remain relevant in the race. If the super-PAC can restore interest in Perry, the direct donations will continue.

National Journal’s Shane Goldmacher notes that the PACs supporting Perry still have a significant war chest:

But while his official campaign has been reduced a volunteer operation, a trio of independent pro-Perry super PACs remain well-heeled, making it less likely Perry will be forced to exit from the race entirely.

“Oh God yes, full steam ahead,” said Austin Barbour, a senior adviser to Perry’s super PACs. “Because we raised $16.8 million.”

The remarkable imbalance between the cash-strapped campaign and flush super PAC will likely test the limits, already being pushed by other underfunded candidates, of how much responsibility can be pushed off onto unlimited-money outside groups.

In other words, a good chunk of that $17 million will go into the pockets of campaign finance lawyers and experts. They will need to navigate a Byzantine aggregation of laws designed to hold a line that supposedly keeps money out of politics, but as Tom Grunick said in Broadcast News, “they keep moving the little bugger, don’t they?” Good luck in avoiding the indictments, fellas.

In a rational system, the candidate would have that cash, and would have full responsibility for how it gets spent. A rational system would also provide transparency on where that support originates, at least for significant contributions to the candidate. This system does neither. It keeps supporters from using their dollars to fund a campaign as they would prefer, forces the cash into opaque organizations with no accountability, and makes the problem of influence even worse as a consequence. Now we have reached the reductio ad absurdum of campaign financing, where a candidate’s funding gets choked off but the candidacy exists in a zombie-like state. Call it the Walking Dead, for lack of a better term.

It’s a shame, too, because Perry has a solid record of conservative policy success in Texas, and is one of the few candidates who can bridge the pre- and post-Tea Party eras on the Right, having won elections in both periods. Perry could be a compelling contender, but he has to survive the primary process first, of course, but this is more a failure of the system than the candidate.