Tongue-Tied Texan: The New Rick Perry Sounds a Lot Like the Old Rick Perry

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Mary Ann Chastain / AP

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry holds up the tax form he says that Americans would fill out under his proposal for a flat 20 percent income tax rate Oct. 25, 2011 at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina.

There are only so many times a candidate can pull a “What was he thinking!?” moment before voters begin to write them off. Rick Perry is right on the cusp.

The Texas governor sunk from a high of 38% in the polls when he entered the Republican presidential field as the front runner 11 weeks ago to 6% in one national poll last week. Even worse, according to the latest Des Moines Register survey, he’s polling at just 7% in Iowa – a must-win state for Perry’s campaign. Perry is even losing Texas Republicans, according to a new University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll out today.

Last week, as I wrote, Perry rebooted his campaign. He brought in a bevy of veteran national strategists, released a tax plan and went on air with his first television ads. The tax plan was pretty well received. The ads were surprisingly positive for a guy whose modus operandi during his gubernatorial races was to go negative, and a smart move given that Perry’s problems lie not in how much Republicans love Mitt Romney–not much–but in finding a national political identity for himself. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz wrote last week, voters perceive Perry as a bully – an image problem he needs to fix ASAP. And so, everyone watched to see if the new staff and approach would turn things around for Perry. The early reviews aren’t good.

On Friday Perry traveled to New Hampshire to file his papers to be on the ballot in January. While there, he delivered a rambling and at times incoherent speech, which only fed the rumors that maybe Perry’s still on serious painkillers following major back surgery in July. The campaign says Perry’s off any pain medications and two weeks ago resumed his running workouts. But something was clearly off on Friday as Perry hemmed and hawed his way through the speech, at times gesticulating wilding, hooting and smirking at his own jokes and staring googly-eyed at a jar of maple syrup he was given, turning it upside down and watching the syrup ooze downwards, while exclaiming, “Awesome!”

Perry followed up his New Hampshire performance with an interview with Fox News Sunday. Host Chris Wallace grilled Perry on his new jobs plan and Perry didn’t seem to have any answers. For example, Wallace pressed Perry on his pledge to create 2.5 million jobs in his first term as President – an insignificant number, Wallace said, give that even Jimmy Carter created 10.5 million jobs in his four years.

WALLACE: But how do you answer this question. Two and half million doesn’t keep pace with the population growth. We would — our unemployment rate would increase under this goal?

PERRY: I don’t believe that for a minute. That is just absolutely false on its face. Americans will get back to work. Are we going to go out and make some, you know, claim and say, oh, it’s going to create 10.5 million jobs? We would be having the same conversation. Oh, that’s not realistic.

Perry’s staff said last week he may not participate in all of the remaining debates–perhaps a wise choice given his past performances. Perry’s strength is as a retail politician, and certainly that should be his focus moving forward. But the first voting begins in nine weeks. And without the platform of the debates – and, given Friday’s stemwinder, maybe Perry should lay off the high-profile speeches – it’s hard to imagine how and where Perry can go to turn things around. All that said, his top competitor for the anti-Romney slot, Herman Cain, is the only person in politics having a worse week than Perry. So, the Texas governor still has a shot, but only if he manages to avoid more “What was he thinking!?” moments.

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