Dowd: Perry Has Time to Pull It Together – But Not Much

As Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the presidential race a bit more than a month ago, I was asked numerous times about what kind of candidate he would be and what would happen in the race. I have written a few columns on this and said what I thought might happen. Let’s review.

Perry is a very good retail politician and very attuned to the emotional arc of the Republican electorate. However, he has never been under the big spotlight of a national campaign, and he has never had to recover from a big stumble or loss in his political career — which would have been the real test of his political trajectory.

I told many folks that if Perry got through mid-October without taking on water or stumbling badly, he would move methodically toward the Republican nomination. Well, it isn’t mid-October yet and the Texan has taken on more water than there has been rain in the state this year, and he has stumbled a good bit — mainly in the debates.

Can he recover? Yes, but he needs to do so quickly and he needs to come prepared and ready to win the debate on Oct. 11 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. If he fares badly there his fundraising will begin to dry up, he will begin to lose significant support in national polls and he will likely be on a death spiral. Yes, the pressure is on, and he better be ready to rumble, and not stumble.

What else have we learned? Many pundits say that this is what happens when you get into a national race this late and are unprepared, which is true, in part. But let me make a different argument. Maybe instead of saying Perry waited too long, we should be saying that he should have waited just a little while longer.

If he had waited to get in until about mid-October, it would have given Perry and his team more time to get ready to answer all of the questions that they should have been prepared to handle. It also would have allowed him to miss four debates, the process would have been very truncated and he still would be on a high going into the holidays. Then he would have been the leading candidate heading into the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 6.

The other interesting thing about this process: The way that this Republican electorate is questioning candidates would have exposed even Ronald Reagan as a left-leaning candidate. Remember, Reagan was pro-choice, pro-tax, pro-government and pro-compromise in his political career.

Even the most recent Republican president, George W. Bush, would have had difficulty, especially since his positions on immigration and illegal-immigrant issues were even more moderate than Perry’s. If Reagan and Bush would have been seen as flawed and viewed as calm instead of hot in rhetoric in this field, it tells you a lot about the electorate.

Perry still has time (just a little). President Obama is still vulnerable, and another new candidate may emerge. But after Herman Cain won the Florida straw poll Saturday, to quote Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz,” “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”  And as far as the country is concerned, I don’t think we are over the rainbow.