When I was in Austin last month reporting on the rise of Rick Perry, Texas political insiders again and again would praise Perry's political team for its cohesion and stability -- a close-knit group of associates and advisers he'd accumulated over the years, each of which knew his or her role and strengths and weaknesses, and each of which ultimately deferred to the unquestioned leader, Dave Carney, Perry's acerbic chief strategist.
There was just one caveat I kept hearing: it would not necessarily be an easy transition for this team to move onto the national stage. It would, inevitably, have to absorb new faces into the mix. More importantly, it was going to have to run a different kind of campaign than it was used to. In Texas, Perry's approach had been simple: win the hard-core Republican base in the low-turnout GOP primaries, and then count on the state's Republican tilt to win in the general election, even if many independents and moderate Republicans peeled away from Perry. It was about base turnout, not persuasion. There was little need for nuance.
Running for president would be different. "I don't think it'll be seamless," cautioned Bill Miller, a veteran Austin political consultant who has worked for both parties and counts Perry as a friend. And no, it has not been seamless. In fact, it's been coming apart at the seams, which is why Perry has now brought in a whole new set of advisers, in addition to his standard team, led by Joe Allbaugh, who served as the day-to-day manager of George W. Bush's campaigns, alongside the rest of Bush's "iron triangle," the big-picture guy Karl Rove, and Bush's personal guardian, Karen Hughes. I asked Miller how to read the shake-up. Some of his observations:
1. For Perry to bring in Allbaugh suggests that the Bush-Perry feud has been overstated. "This puts to rest the idea that Bush and Perry were at odds. Allbaugh wouldn't do it if there were true bad blood."
2. This represents the demotion of Carney, because Allbaugh wouldn't come in unless he was going to run the show. "Joe's a super tough guy with an emphasis on super. He is not a guy who plays second fiddle to anything. I would assume Joe came in with the understanding that he was going to call the shots."
3. The move is further proof of the sway of Anita Perry. She helped persuade Perry to run, and she earlier played a key role in getting him to issue the controversial HPV vaccine mandate. "This is Anita-driven, not Rick-driven. Anita is the one who said, 'We've got to make changes.'"
4. Even if Allbaugh is coming in with a mandate to take charge, mixing the new team and the old will not be easy, especially when it comes to Allbaugh and Carney. "When you put two bulls in the pasture, it’s going to be interesting to see how it works. Typically bulls don’t exist well together."
5. Perry had to make the move because his team was failing him. "The candidate is the talent. And the job of the team is to prepare and execute around that talent to bring out the best the talent can offer. The candidate I can see now is not the same candidate I saw down here -- he doesn't look the same, he doesn't sound the same, he doesn't project the same. There are a lot of things that contribute to that, but the person who holds responsibility for that is the team, not the talent. If you haven't picked the right backdrops, if you haven't prepared for contingencies, he's going to get blind-sided. It looks like he has not been prepared for a whole bunch of things he walked into as a candidate." As examples of staff miscues, Miller pointed to the lousy backdrop and acoustics at Perry's big energy-jobs speech in Pittsburgh and the campaign's decision to allow Anita Perry to campaign on her own, with a friend of hers as her only backup. "If I were running for president, I wouldn't put my wife on the trail alone with her good friend. I'd want a professional taking care of her."
6. There's still a window for Allbaugh et al to right the ship. "Joe will improve the campaign, no question about that. This is the second start to the campaign. The first start ended [Monday], this is the second, and I might add, last chance to get things right...It doesn’t take more than to say, let's clean this up and get it going right. [Perry] can turn it around. There's still room to rebound. But he'll have to be extra special good, not just good, to regain that ground. That's a tall order."