SIOUX CITY, IOWA -- The big question coming out of the Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night is whether social conservatives who were leaning towards Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich will move in large numbers to Rick Santorum, whom the poll showed to be rising fast. I went yesterday to the town Boone -- hometown of Mamie Eisenhower! -- to see Perry and see what he's offering to voters to keep that sort of desertion from happening.
I came away fairly flabbergasted. What in the world had happened to Rick Perry, the campaigner extraordinaire of Texas legend? The man I saw in Boone was having difficulty making it through a basic 10-minute stump speech -- he relied on notes throughout, even in talking about his own biography, giving the distinct impression that someone else had come up with these most basic words about himself. ("I’m a limited government conservative who’s going to stand up and give Washington a real overhaul." The words do not exactly ring natural.)
The sight couldn't help but prompt some self-examination in your humble correspondent. After talking to many Texans for my September cover story on Perry, I had arrived at one overriding conclusion -- Perry was not the raving ideologue many had made him out to be; rather, he was a man driven by a more conventional sort of ambition, who thrived on "the business of politics: ladder-climbing, deal-making, campaigning, and, most of all, winning." The first part of that conclusion was surely correct -- a true ideologue would not have as much trouble enunciating the conservative vision as Perry did, he would be able to spool it out at length as I watched Santorum do the day before. But what about the second half of my conclusion, that Perry thrived on the nuts and bolts of campaigning? There are two possible answers: either the standards of Texas politics are oddly low and Perry's stump performances in all those victorious campaigns there were being judged on a generous curve, or he in fact was much better back home and has simply lost it here in Iowa, a fish out of water who is all too aware that he has become one of the biggest flops in presidential primary history.
Making the spectacle all the more depressing to behold is that this lost candidate is still traveling with all the trappings of a man on the move -- a big campaign bus, a trailing press bus, a sound guy with fancy equipment, and all sorts of security types with wires in their ears and comical-looking long black coats (all paid for, of course, by Texas taxpayers.) Yet he feels the need to spend the first minutes of his stump speech attacking a man, Santorum, who is still driving around in a Dodge Ram with an aide or two. He cast Santorum as a Washington insider and big spender who loved earmarks and voted for "Medicaid Part D." (Wrong program, guv.)
Leave aside for now the hypocrisy of this attack and consider how remarkable it is that the man who came into the race as the anti-Romney, who seemed to truly relish going after the well-born Bostonian, is giving a stump speech in the closing days of the Iowa caucus that leaves Romney out of the picture entirely. (Nate Silver made a good point on this today: "In turning his attention to Mr. Santorum and to socially conservative voters, Mr. Perry may have helped to entrench his status as a second-tier candidate, competing for a fraction of the electorate that can help a candidate to win Iowa but becomes less relevant outside of it. By contrast, Mr. Perry’s peak in national polls in September had been associated with a low ebb for Mr. Romney, suggesting that at least some voters were choosing between them as nationally viable front-runners.")
Perry actually improves slightly when it comes time for questions, when he can no longer rely on the notes. But his answers did little but offer reminders of the moments that have brought him low. A question about spending led him to declare, "I don't have any idea why we have a Department of Energy." (No mention of the other two on the list...) A question about immigration led him to defend his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, which has proved so devastating to him in Iowa, even though the questioner did not bring up the tuition point. There was an odd moment when a man got up to complain about the lack of cooperation he has gotten from Texas officials in dealing with a custody fight over his granddaughter. Perry promised to look into it; if nothing else, then, this ill-fated campaign may end up helping that man.
For really, what is the point now? Perry is planning to skip New Hampshire, where he never got off the ground despite the debatable efforts of his ousted chief strategist, New Hampshire native David Carney, and instead head straight for South Carolina, where he kicked off his campaign in happier days back in August. But as many conservatives are pointing out, this will only guarantee that the anti-Romney vote will remain splintered until it's too late, guaranteeing that the flip-flopper whom Perry seems to hold in genuine scorn will waltz to the nomination. Watching Perry, I couldn't help but wonder whether he will decide to hang it up before then; I thought back to the people in Texas who told me they were surprised that he had decided to run for president, that he had seemed content with the empire he had built for himself in Austin. An embarrassing showing in Iowa for the man who has only known victories might just be enough to send him back to the comforts of home, though there will be the awkwardness of explaining to all those cronies, er, supporters, why so little came of the millions they provided him with.
Closing his stump speech, Perry made a blatant play for the religious vote: "I think about the Prophet Isaiah. As God was asking who shall I send, who will go for us, Isaiah said, here I am, send me." But the more apt biblical metaphor came at the start of his speech, when he made a quip about separating the sheep from the goats. Rick Perry may not be sharpest knife in the butcher's shop, but he is, as everyone in Texas told me, plenty canny about politics, and he surely knows at this point that, in the campaign of 2012, a sheep he is not.