What can Rick Perry do now? Polls show his ratings being pulled down, down, down by the combined weight of poor debate performances, lackluster campaigning and a spectacular gaffe.
Then, on the same day the polling was finished, Perry delivered a solid performance in the Republicans' first debate devoted specifically to foreign policy issues. If Perry had performed at all the debates like he did on Nov. 12 --- not dominant, not victorious, but respectable -- he would never have had a debate problem. And he might still be near the front of the Republican pack. But that didn't happen. So what now?
Recently, the newest contender in the race, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was asked on Fox News what he would advise Perry to do. My recommendation would be do lots of town hall meetings, Gingrich said. Let people ask you lots of questions. He is either going to get a lot better at it or he is not going to be in the race. But nothing will substitute for him being out there and letting the people see him.
There's no doubt Perry is not doing enough of that type of campaigning. On a recent visit to Iowa, for example, one of his few stops was a town hall at Pioneer Hi-Bred, a producer of high-tech agricultural products. Perry blew in with his entourage of Texas Rangers, delivered brief remarks and took a few questions from employees. Given the number of clipboard-carrying Pioneer staffers keeping a sharp eye on everyone, there was no chance any of those employees would ask Perry anything challenging. And Perry said nothing to the press; after the session, a Pioneer spokeswoman emailed reporters to explain that we were unable to grant a media Q&A/interview opportunity with the governor, due to his staff's request.
That's not the kind of event that makes a candidate a better campaigner. Instead of controlled-access appearances, Perry would benefit from more no-rules contact with regular voters. Such encounters are totally unpredictable; one woman in Iowa last week, who described herself as a former Perry supporter, said she recently approached Perry and told him he simply had to stop sounding like George W. Bush. (Her advice left Perry at a loss for words, she reported.) Unscripted talks with voters make a candidate ready for anything.
In the long run, they also help candidates avoid big mistakes. If Perry had been traveling around Iowa in April or May and had made his famous comment that people who disagreed with him on immigration have no heart, it's likely some voter would have hit back hard. There's no way Perry would have repeated the charge in a high-profile televised debate, as he did in Florida on Sept. 22.
Likewise, if Perry had been doing three, four or five unscripted town hall meetings a day, giving voters a summary of his proposals at each, it's highly unlikely he would have been unable to name the three Cabinet departments he would eliminate, as happened Nov. 9 in Michigan. His platform would have been burned into his memory.
Even at this late date, Perry could benefit from a freer, looser campaign. Traveling around Iowa for long encounters with voters at Pizza Ranches and town centers would allow Republicans to see Perry in a new way. If Perry made a good impression, word would get around. Sooner or later, the media would catch on, too.
Would it be enough for Perry to get back to the lead? That's highly unlikely; he's dug a hole far too deep for that. But polls show recent front-runner Herman Cain's support is dwindling, and the surging Gingrich could also fade in the days before the Iowa caucuses. If Perry works hard, voters might give him another look. In the end, if Perry wants to leave the campaign with a better reputation than he has today, he'll have to try something new.