Rick Perry Reshuffles Staff, but the Heart of His Campaign Remains the Same

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Narayan Mahon / The New York Times / Redux

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry campaigns in Wilton, Iowa, Oct. 22, 2011.

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s troubled campaign announced on Monday that it would be adding staff, including veteran national GOP strategists Nelson Warfield, Curt Anderson and Tony Fabrizio. But Perry’s campaign in Austin was quick to swat down allegations of a tumultuous shake-up. “This is the natural expansion of a growing campaign,” said communications director Ray Sullivan, sitting in his office, comprised of four blank walls and a desk scattered with a few papers and a laptop. “No one is leaving. No one is being demoted or forced out.”

The Perry campaign prides itself on running a low-key, outside-the-Beltway campaign. The very idea of hiring national Republican strategists had seemed out of character for the Tea Party darling who once accused Ben Bernanke (a George W. Bush appointee) of treason. His campaign headquarters in Austin are discreet — there are no “Rick Perry for President” banners — and the campaign isn’t even named in the building directory. It’s been two months since Perry launched his campaign, and his relatively small staff — fewer than 50 people, with just five or so staffers in each of the early-primary states — isn’t even hawking paraphernalia yet, though you can pick up bumper stickers and window signs from the main office, if you can find it. (Barack Obama, by contrast, ordered tens of thousands of T-shirts, cups and bumper stickers ahead of his 2007 campaign announcement and had hundreds of staff members and volunteers already installed in Chicago by the big day.)

But what had effectively been a beefed-up governor’s campaign was struggling to manage the rigors of a presidential one. And that’s what led to Monday’s hires. “Team Perry was overwhelmed,” says Mark McKinnon, a longtime Austin GOP strategist and former adviser to Bush. “They just didn’t have enough horses. Now they do.”

When asked if the staff additions were a response to Perry’s 20-point slide in national polls over the past month, as well as a series of subpar debate performances, Sullivan shrugged. “We don’t want to dwell on the past,” he said. “We’re moving forward into a new phase of the campaign.” And he insisted that the new phase, which will focus on more paid media, staff expansion in key states and development of grassroots support, will be executed by Perry’s longtime inner circle — the same six people whom Perry has always trusted and who have always delivered for him, including Sullivan, campaign manager Rob Johnson, political strategist Dave Carney, policy and strategy adviser Dierdre Delisi, pollster Mike Baselice and longtime Perry intimate David Weeks.

Five of the six staffers have been with Perry since his run for lieutenant governor in 1998. This is a testament to both the loyalty Perry inspires and the insularity of tight-knit political circles. “We know each other’s strengths,” said Sullivan, laughing. “We’re very transparent to one another and extremely blunt.”

And the blunt reality is that the Texas brain trust is now on unfamiliar footing. What has worked for them in the past may not pan out in the national arena. Perry’s strength clearly isn’t, as he has acknowledged, debates or marquee speeches. And while he is talented at pressing the flesh, the candidate has been reserved in the retail politicking that’s the staple of Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns. Perry’s advisers have been planning a television-commercial-heavy approach, similar to the one that led to victories in Perry’s gubernatorial campaigns. But with time running out, it looks like they will need help pulling it off.