If Texas Governor Rick Perry isn’t the un-Romney that the Republican base craves, who, oh who, will it be?
If Perry cedes the un-Romney label -- and the nomination -- you can carbon date the moment when his campaign’s decomposition began: Sept. 22, 2011, between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. EDT. That’s when the Texas governor stumbled through one of the worst debate performances in memory. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol called Perry’s flubs close to “disqualifying.” Red State blogger Erick Erickson said he was a “train wreck.” The New York Post’s John Podhoretz deemed Perry’s performance: “Awful. Just awful.” Brit Hume of Fox News went the gross-out route, saying Perry “really did throw up all over himself.”
And those are his friends speaking.
Talk of Perry’s debate fiasco jumped from the tiny world of political insiders into the mainstream of late-night television comedy, generating ridicule, including an appearance on David Letterman’s Top Ten list, at warp speed. Yet even before the latest debate, Perry was fodder for jokes. Watching him over the past three weeks, party operatives in Washington had begun either praying for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the race or reconciling themselves to the view that former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is the best the party can muster in 2012.
Perry didn’t just insert his foot in his mouth; he inserted a wedge between his candidacy and the Republican base. Defending his policy of allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend state colleges at the cheaper, in-state tuition rate, Perry sounded as if he thought his party is still home to George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatives. “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they’ve been brought there through no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry said.
Republican pollster Frank Luntz said that Republicans he assembled for a focus group responded so viscerally to Perry’s immigration talk that they couldn’t turn their dials to negative fast enough. Iowa kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, who helped former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee win the Iowa Republican caucuses last time around, said he was sure that Perry would take the opportunity to clarify his stance at an appearance the next day before the Florida Conservative Political Action Convention. Perry didn’t. As a result, Vander Plaats told Time, a lot of conservatives who once ran toward Perry are now “running to somebody else.” Given that opening, don’t be surprised to see Romney, who has mostly ignored Iowa, suddenly find his way to Des Moines and Davenport.
As if to confirm Vander Plaats’ assessment, the Florida CPAC straw poll last weekend was won by pizza entrepreneur Herman Cain, who received 37 percent of the 2,600 votes cast by party activists. Perry, who was expected to win or at least make a strong showing, had 15 percent, and Romney followed with 14 percent.
Immigration is not an issue Perry can finesse; if he holds to his position on in-state tuition he will alienate much of the Republican base. If he retreats, he opens himself up to charges that he lacks conviction. A pattern may already be established. At the last debate, Perry tried to wiggle away from his claim that Social Security is “unconstitutional.” Romney, the flip-flop king, gleefully clobbered the Texan for shifting his views.
Perry’s vulnerabilities extend beyond the border he so regularly invokes. When the debate turned to foreign policy, Perry looked far out at sea. Responding to a predictable question about the proverbial 3 a.m. phone call -- in this scenario the Taliban had gained control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons -- Perry was positively Palinesque. He began by mumbling about a terrorist group in Afghanistan, mentioned building a “relationship in the region” and then said something about selling more arms to India. By the time Perry’s meandering had mercifully concluded, he found himself 3,000 miles east of Islamabad -- in Taiwan.
After three debates in which parts of the country not named Texas have been exposed to him, Perry’s appeal has diminished and the quality of his performance has declined. The debates have revealed that Perry is neither consistently conservative enough to satisfy the Tea Party activists driving the nomination from below, nor sufficiently presidential to mollify the establishment hovering nervously above. And his mind is a muddle.
Yet there is no one waiting in the wings. Those begging Christie to jump in will almost certainly be disappointed -- in part because Christie is self-aware and observant enough to know that his path to the nomination would probably prove no easier than Perry’s. Sarah Palin? It’s not clear that even the base is interested in her at this point. Still, there must be an un-Romney. Until Republicans find one, Romney remains the only electable Republican in sight.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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