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October 05, 2011

Three Questions for the Perry Campaign [Domenech]

So Rick Perry’s been in the race eight weeks. He’s skyrocketed up and then come back to earth. Thanks to the compressed schedule for the Republican Primary, and following in the wake of the Washington Post smear, the next month or so constitutes the window that will determine Perry’s role in this election – as nominee or as Fred Thompson redux.

One of the reasons is that in those eight weeks, he has largely allowed himself to be categorized and boxed in by his opponents; he has not articulated a clear vision to lead the country back to prosperity; and he has seemed unprepared for attacks he should’ve expected from an audience unfamiliar with his Texas record. (For his staff: yes, the national media are idiots for not paying attention to literally anything you’ve done or said on policy for ten-plus years. No, you can’t correct that.) The combo of a lack of a coherent offensive strategy and getting stuck on defense in the debates brings us to the ABC/WaPo 16% tie for second with Herman Cain, which I think is an accurate depiction of where things stand.

He’s got roughly three months before voting starts. He's got several more debates, but they're spaced out a bit. The WaPo smear has pretty clearly backfired, and increasingly looks like a benefit to Perry in the primary, though I’m sure it’ll be blown up again in any general (though it's unlikely to bend anyone who didn't already hate his guts or view him as W. II). The early whispers are that he met his Q3 fundraising goals ($17 Million in seven weeks - Drudge is reporting this, thanks, comments - is pretty nice coin, frankly).

So there are as I see it three key questions about where he goes from here.


1. Does Perry have the heft to be president?

This is a different question than you may think it is. It’s not about impressing the self-styled gatekeepers (leave them to their Santorum worship) in Washington and New York, who still think Rudy Giuliani has national appeal, have never shot a gun, and have no idea about the difference between a lease and a hunting lease (they also haven’t determined the outcome of a Republican primary since 1976). It’s about the donor community and the national conservative base, which overlaps.

This requires different attributes, and more meaningful ones, than the often vacuous checkboxes of the national scene. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan appeals to the base not for its specifics but because it is a plan. It’s an improvement; it’s a sign of seriousness that goes a step further than rhetoric; and it puts a marker in the sand about what he believes economic policy should look like.

Perry’s Texas handlers need to understand that no one has paid attention to Perry’s superb acumen in handling environmental regulatory issues over the past decade, for instance – it’s all new to them. Tim Pawlenty gave a series of pretty good policy speeches that went nowhere because he has the personality of reduced-fat cream cheese. Perry has the opposite problem – he has personality out the ears, but the only policy markers that national Republicans have heard thus far are that he loves Texas, Israel, immigrants, and getting some goats for our computer industry. He doesn’t need to be Paul Ryan, nor should he pretend to be. But he needs a plan, and he needs it soon, and it needs to be damn good. There’s an economic policy-only debate coming up on October 11 where Gardasil and immigration will be in the background; Perry should at least tease his economic plan there, and lay it out soon after.

2. Does Perry have the message to be president?

Keying off the last point: he’s told us what he’s done in Texas many times over, yes yes, we get it. But this is an outline of a message which still sounds like he’s running for governor. Beyond the soundbites now: what does that look like for the country? Nationalize the message. What does Perry’s view of America look like?

It doesn’t matter that Mitt Romney’s vision has changed about thirteen times over the course of his career (don’t like what he’s saying? Just wait), he's still got a "vision" which is vaguely defined in people's minds. You’re competing with a national conservative base that is still getting introduced to you. This is about more than red meat, it’s about framing an understanding of the world and the role you want to chart within it. Christie, Ryan, and Rubio have all given big, prominent speeches about American Exceptionalism over the past month or so that stir up calls for them to run. Romney’s going to do his take on Friday in South Carolina. Perry can't run a campaign just based on how much he loves Texas jobs. He has to nationalize the message. He can do this – I’ve seen him do it before – but he hasn’t done it on the trail yet for some reason.

Perry needs better defenders around him to peel off the task of defending the non-stop drumbeat against Texas – which is real, but is also an attempt to get him off his game (according to a TPPF analysis roughly 90% of the national media stories about Texas since Perry entered the race which are not about Perry have been negative) – so he can focus on offense. Instead of flailing at Romney, he needs to decide his one path of attack and take it when the opportunity comes, with as compact a swing as possible.

Nationalizing the message means emphasizing Perry’s contrast with Romney's record and Obama's approach in stark colors and leading with his vision of America – referencing Texas half as much, and then only as the proof mechanism that he means what he says, and that his methods reap results.

3. Does Perry have the ground game to be president?

Both of the other critiques are about failures of communication, but this one is about the campaign itself. Perry’s best political asset over the past two cycles in Texas was his superb retail operation and his impressive ground game, which allowed him to overperform the expectations of experts and come back from twenty point deficits and the like. They need to understand that he entered this race in comeback mode, not some coronation (I don’t think they did, but I wouldn’t know).

Mitt has been running for this job effectively for his entire adult life, and non-stop for the past six years. He’s done all the due diligence. But only about a quarter of the party likes him at all, and they want to like someone else. But that means connecting with as many people as possible and building a campaign infrastructure very quickly – Perry’s success has come when his political team has been preparing years ahead of time. I’m not sure why he’s spending so much time in New Hampshire – Iowa, where he has a clearer shot, is feeling neglected. South Carolina is the key part of this, but Florida too – and in that state, he’s currently fourth. The ability of Perry’s state level people to collaborate with Nikki Haley and Rick Scott – both of whom like him personally and have yet to endorse – and the gatekeepers on the ground will make a huge difference in the outcome.

A ground game does not come out of thin air, and the ability to construct one in essentially three months is not a task to be considered lightly.

If Perry wants this, and I think he does, we’ll find out the answers to 1 and 2 within the next month or so. We won’t be able to know the answer to the third question until January. And then we’ll know who’ll be the nominee.

Adapted from my daily email, The Transom.

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posted by Guest Blogger at 07:27 AM

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