By any conventional standard, Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy should be a bad memory by now. From roughly mid-September to mid-October, he had about as bad a month as a candidate could have. He was consistently hesitant, defensive, and inarticulate in a series of high-profile candidate debates. But more importantly, he gave deep offense to conservatives by continuing to support a Texas program providing in-state college tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants. His timing was terrible, too: Perry’s slide began soon after his announcement but not long before actual voting begins—i.e., when the Republican rank-and-file in early states begin to focus on the candidate field and form strong impressions. Perry’s decline, of course, can be charted in the national polls, which show him free-falling from a strong frontrunner position to single digits in just over the span of a month.
But Perry may still yet emerge as the Viable Conservative Alternative to Mitt Romney. He might have failed his first audition for that role with the conservative wing of the GOP, but he still has an eminently viable path to recovery, one that he already appears to be employing with zeal: moving even further to the right.
It’s possible to talk about a Perry comeback for three simple reasons. First, he has lots of money, which can cover a multitude of political sins. Second, the presumptive, albeit uninspiring, frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is not about to run away with the race because, to put it bluntly, hard-core conservative voters don’t like or trust him. And third, the other candidates are either damaged goods (Gingrich), classic marginal figures (Bachmann, Santorum and Paul) or Herman Cain, who seems to be trying pretty hard to vindicate predictions that he is a flash-in-the-pan. So Perry will get another look from Republicans. The question is whether he will do a better job this time around at convincing true believers of his unshakable conservative convictions.
His main priority, therefore, has been to ensure that conservatives have something substantive to associate him with other than his terrible positioning on immigration. After initially focusing on his support for massive and unrestrained energy development, which is the closest thing to a short-range “jobs program” today’s conservatives can support, Perry has now laid out a tax-and-spending plan that efficiently pushes an awful lot of right-wing buttons. His “flat tax” proposal is a fraud in that its key features are optional, but for that very reason it is nicely designed to avoid the kind of criticism attracted by Cain’s steadily unraveling 9-9-9 plan. The spending side of Perry’s package, meanwhile—which is heavily focused on the idea of permanently shrinking the federal government via a balanced budget constitutional amendment—is draconian enough to satisfy even the most extreme fiscal conservative. A BBA with spending restrictions also happens to be the pet idea of South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a key national leader of movement conservatives whose home state could play a critical role in the 2012 nominating process.
Aside from dishing out tasty policy treats to the Right, Perry’s effort to seduce movement conservative support is also clearly going to depend on harsh, overtly ideological attacks on Romney. What better way to show you are the Viable Conservative Alternative to Mitt than to identify yourself with the very criticisms of Romney that make “the base” so restive in the first place? Perry’s campaign has already made a habit of regularly referring to Romney as “Obama Lite.” You can expect a lot more of that in the immediate future, particularly if Romney keeps committing heresies like his decision on Tuesday to stay neutral on Ohio’s red-hot referendum on the labor-bashing Senate Bill 5. And there are even signs that Perry will try to play the ideological commissar against other candidates like Herman Cain, as he did in his contemptuous drive-by reference to the pizza man’s abortion rhetoric as “liberal” during last weekend’s Faith and Freedom Coalition banquet in Iowa. It’s even possible that Perry’s eyebrow-raising gestures towards birtherism in a recent interview were part of a deliberate strategy to position him as far to the right of the rest of the field as possible.
Perry’s rebirth as a right-wing crusader will also require that his image be efficiently conveyed to voters via paid media and organization. It’s no accident, therefore, that Perry’s comeback effort has been accompanied by a shakeup of the Texas-based campaign staff that let him drift into a series of high-profile debates ill-prepared to deal with the most obvious attack-lines. While Bush veteran Joe Allbaugh will apparently take over the reins of the campaign from Perry’s old hand David Carney, the other new hires—pollster Tony Fabrizio and media consultants Nelson Warfield and Curt Anderson—are more interesting, since they represent what Chris Cillizza calls “the strategic core” of the expensive, negative, ideologically savage, and ultimately successful 2010 campaign of Florida Governor Rick Scott. With Perry beginning to run TV ads in Iowa just this week, it probably won’t be long before his campaign (or the Super PAC supporting it) starts flooding the airwaves with attacks on Romney and possibly Cain, as well as a constant portrayal of the Texan as the Tea Party ideologue his original backers expected him to be.
Of course, the “rebooted” Perry campaign is still a long shot. Romney could decide to jump into the Iowa contest with both feet and try to score a quick knockout over a divided conservative field. Cain’s lofty poll numbers might yet convince him to take his own campaign more seriously, avoid unforced errors like his abortion gaffe, and above all start spending more time in the early states. Even if everything breaks his way, bouncing back from the single digits after a disastrous run in the spotlight won’t be easy. But Perry will get another brief callback for the job of saving the GOP from Romney. If nothing else, he won’t go down this time without trying to take everyone else down with him.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.