Where Rick Perry’s Campaign Went Wrong

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Richard Shiro / AP

Republican Presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the ISO Poly Films plant, Oct. 25, 2011, in Gray Court, South Carolina.

Austin, Texas

Rick Perry’s campaign is in a bunker. On the first floor of 804 Congress St. in Austin, a 1970s building with a redbrick front, 45 people are trying to figure out how to get Perry elected President. There are no Perry for President signs – only maps (Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida – New Hampshire is curiously absent) – as during Perry’s third and last campaign for Texas governor he proudly didn’t waste money on such frivolities. The office is in an old bank space just off the lobby. At the back is a vault, its massive three-foot-thick metal door hanging open. Inside the concrete box sit campaign manager Rob Johnson and Perry’s longtime political guru Dave Carney. On Carney’s desk there is a small stack of books, including one by Ken Blackwell and Ken Klukowski entitled, Resurgent: How Constitutional Conservatism Can Save America. As both men know well, Perry is in desperate need of a resurgence.

When he announced his candidacy 10 weeks ago, the three-term Texas governor entered the GOP field in first place, blowing ahead of Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. But his numbers have plummeted since; at 6% in some national polls he can’t go much lower. So it came as not too much of a surprise when Perry announced this week that he’d be shaking things up. He brought in four national campaign veterans, including Joe Allbaugh, who ran George W. Bush’s 2000 bid. As a former head of FEMA, Allbaugh is no stranger to disasters.

(PHOTOS: Rick Perry’s Life and Career in Politics)

Perry still has a decent shot at the nomination. The media loves a good comeback story and his campaign is the most established, well-staffed and well-funded of all of the alternatives to Romney. But in order to fix things, Team Perry needs to figure out what went so wrong so fast. Admitting that there was a problem has not been something that the campaign, or at least those who ran it until this week, have been willing to do.  “We don’t want to dwell on the past, we’re looking forward,” says Perry communications director Ray Sullivan. “We generally don’t indulge in navel gazing.”

Carney, Johnson and Sullivan, along with policy adviser Deirdre Delisi, ad man David Weeks and pollster Mike Baselice form Perry’s tight-knit inner circle. Five of the six – all except Johnson – have been with Perry since his bid for lieutenant governor in 1998. They successfully steered Perry through three gubernatorial races and he trusted their ability to take him to the next level in the presidential campaign. But overconfidence may have been part of the problem. Perry and his team haven’t been in a close contest in more than a decade. The last time most former staffers remember seeing Perry work hard on the campaign trail was in 2002, when he was running against Democrat Tony Sanchez. Back then he campaigned in one big market and two medium-sized markets each day and attended fundraisers every other night. (These days he’s doing one, maybe two, public events a week.) “They got soft,” says Paul Burka, a longtime political columnist for the Texas Monthly. “A Democrat hasn’t won statewide in Texas since 1994. Their opposition has been almost non-existent. There was this aura of invincibility.”

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The aura made Perry’s team complacent. Despite evidence that Perry has been considering a run for higher office for more than a year – his last state budget made a very political statement and he formed fundraising organizations in Iowa and South Carolina a year ago – they entered the campaign unprepared. Though Carney disputes this, several sources say they did little opposition research on their own candidate–a staple of modern presidential campaigns–assuming that he’d already been vetted by his six statewide wins. After Perry’s first two weeks on the national stage when he aggressively promoted his record of job creation, the campaign did little to promote his achievements in Texas or provide a narrative for his candidacy. (They finally returned to his jobs resume in the first television ads their running in Iowa this week.)

Instead, Perry allowed his opponents to define him. After several scrappy debates, the only thing Republican voters knew about his health care record in Texas was that he had mandated the HPV vaccine for teenage girls; all they heard about his immigration record was Romney’s assertion in the last debate that Texas has let more undocumented workers into the country than any other state, and that Perry provided in-state college tuition to many of them. Perry, who refused to debate or speak to newspaper editorial boards during his 2010 gubernatorial reelection, was clearly ill-prepared to defend himself. His staff now says that he may not participate in future debates after Nov. 9.

(MORE: Perry’s Flat Tax Curveball)

It wasn’t just poor debate performances. The campaign let Perry’s wife, Anita, go to campaign events without staff supervision, which may have led to an episode earlier this month when she went off message by bemoaning how tough the race has been on her husband. The campaign also neglected to prepare a robust policy platform. Perry’s energy speech was taken virtually whole cloth from an oil company lobbyist group’s website. His economic plan remained unfinished just days before he was scheduled to give a speech on it and, according to two sources close to the campaign, Perry himself hadn’t been briefed on the proposal on the Sunday before the big roll-out, an assertion that Carney denies.  “Yes, their message was underdeveloped,” acknowledges a Perry insider. “It’s something that they’re working on. They went from zero to 100 in sixty seconds. There’s still some stuff they’re catching up on.”

The campaign headquarters, which until Labor Day were based out of Delisi’s husband’s office a block away – Ted Delisi is Perry’s direct mailer — are the size you’d expect for a candidate’s who is running for governor of Maine. Meg Whitman had 10 times the staff and volunteers in her race for California governor. There’s no volunteer hub and the campaign has set up Facebook pages for only about half of key primary states. Though Perry may disdain campaign swag, hawking t-shirts and hats is exactly how Barack Obama collected millions of names, numbers and e-mails to draw upon in 2008. “If I could change anything, it’d be the amount of time – our schedule,” Carney says. “But we’re entering a new phase of the campaign now, the retail phase. We’ve got advertising up. We’ve got good plans out there… [Perry] is the only authentic conservative in this race and we’re confident that voters will realize that.”

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According to several former staffers, Perry once posited that Texas fell into disrepair because George W. Bush spent his entire tenure as Governor running for President. “You can’t do both jobs well,” he said. The remark seems to have proven prescient. Perry’s window of opportunity to win the nomination isn’t closed, but he’s missing his swagger, the drive that earned him three terms as governor of Texas. “He may be discovering that he really only enjoys a fight that he’s winning,” says Harold Cook, a Texas Democratic strategist. Perry has to demonstrate he really wants this or else no number of national strategists will be able to save him.