When Rick Perry brought on a new team of advisers, the assumption was that he was about to initiate a scorched-earth campaign against anemic front-runner Mitt Romney. These advisers, who had helped Gov. Rick Scott win a rough-and-tumble race in Florida, were supposed to know how to play nasty. They would surely pummel Romney because time is short, no one has been able to lay a glove on him, and there is such ample opportunity.
That might happen someday. But if the new Perry team is smart (and it is), it’s not going to go after Romney before repairing Perry's image first.
Perry's problem is within the Tea Party. In a CBS poll five weeks ago, 30 percent of those affiliated with the Tea Party said they supported Perry. Now only 7 percent do. That number is not going to be improved by exposing the wires in Romney’s control panel. Those voters are not looking at Romney. They are looking for the best candidate to carry their values forward. Right now that candidate is Herman Cain.
OK: So Perry's new team of vicious junkyard dogs will go after Cain, right? (Please, let’s have some fighting here, because we're all bored!) No, they're not going to go after Cain either. That's not going to win hearts back. To replace Cain, Perry will have to do two things: Let voters come to the conclusion Cain is wonderful but not ready to be president, and rebuild Perry as the alternative once voters are ready for a second look at him.
Cain is sustained by his outsider status, which covers a multitude of sins. He is also very appealing. But as Dan Balz reported, in a focus group in Cincinnati, pollster Peter Hart identified the ultimate weakness for Cain: Though the respondents were over-the-moon for him, his support hit a brick wall when they started thinking about him in the Oval Office.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton and her campaign tried to take down Barack Obama by saying it was "time to pick a president." In other words: End your dalliance with the person who makes you feel good and start thinking about who has the attributes necessary to handle the job. That didn't work for her, but the non-Cain candidates hope a version of that same mindset will eventually kick in and give voters second thoughts about Cain.
When that moment comes, a candidate like Perry has to be ready. Right now he's got some work to do. In that same focus group, when attendees were asked to compare Perry to a character from fifth grade, they said "bully." (If only they'd meant it the way Teddy Roosevelt did.)
To repair his image, Perry has to remind voters why they liked him in the first place. He is a committed Christian, and he has a record he can point to in Texas that shows commitment to conservative principles. Yes, he has blemishes—but so do all the candidates. According to NBC’s Carrie Dann, when Perry was able to explain his record on immigration to a Tea Party voter in New Hampshire on Friday, he made the sale.
Now he just needs to repeat that. Negative ads will only get in the way, which is why Perry is running positive spots so far. This isn't to say that Perry won't keep up the “Mitt is a flip-flopper” attack. That would be malpractice. And Romney is helping. This week he was accused of flip-flopping on his support for the flat tax. It was a bogus charge. As if to fill the vacuum of fresh flip-flopping material, he wiggled and waffled on his support for Ohio's Issue 2. He said he was unfamiliar and didn't want to get involved, though he had previously offered support, which he then renewed a day after he said he wouldn't get involved. (The most implausible moment of this embarrassing series of events was when Romney said he wasn't familiar with the local issue. Debate Boy, who has aced nearly every question in the forums and who on the stump asks detailed questions about Iowa corn farming and cattle feedlots, was fuzzy on the deets? If he says so.)
Perry has another thing going for him. Four-fifths of GOP voters say they are still undecided in their choice for president. At the same point in 2007, that number was about the same. Rudy Giuliani dropped like a rock from front-runner, Huckabee rose and McCain re-emerged from the back of the pack. A lot can still happen. Perry just has to hope that he's in a position to take advantage when the time comes.