Campaign Crawlers

Return of the Phantom Menace

Will Rick Perry help Mitt Romney clinch in South Carolina?

By 1.13.12

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One Thursday night in August I returned to my hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa, and turned on the TV to catch up with the news I had missed while out on the road covering Atlanta businessman Herman Cain's campaign visit to Oskaloosa. It wasn't just the news I wanted to see, however, but also the political ads. Being "on the ground" during an election campaign provides an opportunity to watch local TV and see how frequently the ads are running, which is not something you can evaluate accurately unless you're there. With less than 10 days remaining until the Aug. 13 Iowa GOP straw poll in Ames, those ads were running pretty heavy on TV in Des Moines on the night of Aug. 4. Most of the ads were either for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who were going head-to-head in the crucial straw poll, but there was also an ad promoting a politician who wasn't going to be on the ballot at Ames and who, at that point, had not even publicly confirmed that he was going to be a candidate for president.

"What if we had a candidate for President with a real record of creating jobs?" the TV ad asked Iowans. "A conservative with proven leadership in tough times. The leader of a state that created more jobs in the past two years than the other 49 states combined."

That ad, from a so-called "super-PAC" called Jobs for Iowa, was touting the not-yet-official presidential candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. And as I worked that Thursday night in my Des Moines hotel room, writing a column for The American Spectator ("Showdown in Corn Country," Aug. 5), the ad appeared several more times, in roughly the same frequency as the ads for Pawlenty and Bachmann. This made no sense to me. Why would Perry's supporters be spending money to air TV ads in Iowa, where the first-in-the-nation caucuses were still several months away and the Texan wouldn't be participating in the straw poll? Something weird was happening and I wrote on my blog, "Having Rick Perry's potential campaign looming on the horizon casts a certain shadow over the proceedings here." I began referring to Perry's strange campaign as "The Phantom Menace" of Iowa. And a few days later, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, when I arrived at a Pawlenty event at the state capitol building, I was surprised to find a group of college girls, dressed in "Americans for Rick Perry" T-shirts, on the scene promoting Perry as a write-in candidate for the straw poll.

By then, it had already been announced that Perry would declare his candidacy on Aug. 13 -- the same day as the Ames straw poll -- at the "Red State Gathering," a conference in Charleston, S.C., sponsored by a popular conservative blog. This made his TV ads and proxy campaign in Iowa even more difficult to explain. Iowa Republican officials told me that the Perry campaign had actually approached them about participating in the straw poll and had decided against it. So it seemed that Perry, having consciously made a decision to upstage the Iowa event with his South Carolina campaign announcement, was also trying to circumvent the state GOP through this conspicuous effort to woo Iowans with TV ads and solicit their straw poll write-in votes at Ames.

It was downright strange, suggestive of extreme hubris on the part of the Texas governor and his staff and, at least to me, it seemed to be an ill omen. When I tried to explain my sense of foreboding, however, some commenters at my blog -- evidently swept up in the Perry hype -- were skeptical of my sense that it would lead toward catastrophe. To one of these skeptics, I responded: "What I fear will happen is that Perry will spend several months sucking up media oxygen and burning through GOP donor cash, only to collapse early next year. This will have the effect of suffocating other conservative candidates, and thereby lead to ... Romney 2012."

Now, more than five months after that premonition struck me, we can see how close the prophecy is to fulfillment. Perry's campaign is quite obviously near an irretrievable collapse. He finished a weak fifth in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 and reportedly considered quitting, only to tell reporters the next day he was "headed to New Hampshire and then to South Carolina." Instead of going to New Hampshire, where his name was on the ballot but he got only one percent of the vote, after a trip home to Texas, Perry began campaigning in South Carolina, where the latest poll shows him in sixth place. Even his single-digit support in the Palmetto State, however, might translate to several thousand votes and, if the race is close there in the Jan. 21 primary, could be enough to make the difference in a narrow victory for Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. There is evidently no hope at all that Perry will win South Carolina, nor does he have a chance in the Jan. 31 primary in Florida (where the latest poll by Rasmussen also shows him sixth) and thus the obvious question presents itself: Why is Perry still running?

Whatever the answer to that question, it is far less interesting than another question: What would have happened if Perry hadn't run at all?

The first casualty of Perry's decision to run for president was the campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In June, Gingrich's campaign manager and a half-dozen senior advisers quit. Several of those staffers -- who disparaged Gingrich to the press as they left his campaign -- soon re-emerged in the hire of the embryonic Perry campaign. The damage done to Gingrich seemed irreparable at the time, but the former speaker recovered enough that polls now show him Romney's leading rival in South Carolina. So… what if?

A similar "what if" scenario involves Pawlenty, who quit the race the day after he finished a disappointing third in the Ames straw poll. Would Pawlenty have been able to continue his campaign, had it not been for Perry's splashy entrance to the GOP field? And what about Bachmann, who won the straw poll in Iowa but -- because of the buzz surrounding Perry's announcement -- was deprived of the bounce she might otherwise have gotten from her hard-fought August victory? The same could be said of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose low-budget campaign exceeded expectations with a strong fourth-place showing in the Ames straw poll. Santorum's encouraging boost, however, was buried in the media swirl surrounding the campaign debut of Perry, who immediately zoomed to the top of the polls. Weeks of media hype and millions of dollars in campaign contributions, however, were not enough to sustain Perry's instant ascent to frontrunner status. In three TV debates in September, Perry stumbled badly trying to defend his decisions to mandate Gardasil injections for Texas schoolgirls and provide in-state college tuition credits for illegal immigrants. His campaign reportedly spent $250,000 in their effort to win a Sept. 24 Florida GOP straw poll, only to be embarrassed by a lopsided loss to Cain.

Attempting to revive his candidacy, the Perry campaign spent millions of dollars to air TV and radio ads in Iowa -- the same state where he had made the fateful decision to skip the GOP straw poll in August -- and achieved nothing but a fifth-place finish, draining off enough conservative votes to enable Romney to eke out an eight-vote win over Santorum. Now Perry is desperately flailing around South Carolina, where he has denounced Romney as a "vulture capitalist," which caused one of Perry's major donors to shift his support to Romney and also caused Rush Limbaugh to compare Perry to Fidel Castro.

It is difficult now to remember that there was a time, in August and early September, when the Perry campaign appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut, a bandwagon that many conservatives climbed aboard in the belief that it would roll all the way to the White House. Nobody believes that anymore, and the catastrophic failure of his 2012 campaign has not only marred Perry's previously admirable reputation, but it has also put the GOP on the verge of fulfilling my August prophecy. Unless Gingrich or Santorum can rally to defeat the current Republican frontrunner in South Carolina, the ultimate result of Perry's ill-advised campaign will almost certainly prove to be what I warned it would be five months ago: Romney 2012.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.