Perry leaves them cold at Western GOP activist conference

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2011 

LAS VEGAS — The day after a fierce debate with his Republican presidential rivals on Wednesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry couldn't spark much momentum among GOP insiders for his lagging presidential campaign.

Perry was the first of a parade of GOP candidates speaking to a group that should be one of his strongest constituencies — conservative Republican activists from 16 states meeting here for a four-day Western Republican Leadership Conference.

There was little enthusiasm for Perry's candidacy. But businessman Herman Cain got a rousing, standing ovation after he spoke. At one point, when organizers told him he was almost out of time, the crowd hollered that he should keep going.

Lorianne Kaserman of Stateline, Nev., said she was a "huge Perry fan" before the Tuesday debate.

"Now, I'm not," she said, after watching Perry interrupt former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during a clash over immigration.

"I don't like people who don't give others the courtesy to speak," she said.

Most people at the conference are still candidate shopping; they want a winner. Typical was the view of Las Vegas retiree Arthur Gisi. "I really don't care which one gets it, as long as the party nominates a bona fide conservative," he said.

Romney, considered a strong favorite in Nevada, where he won the 2008 Republican caucus easily, got generally good notices. So did Cain, who vowed a bold plan "throwing out the current tax code, throw it out," as listeners applauded.

Cain came under assault Tuesday by his rivals on his 9-9-9 tax plan, which they said would mean higher taxes for most people. When Cain started to introduce his plan, the crowd cheerfully chanted "9-9-9" before he could mention it. And the audience loved it when he pledged no loopholes_"the lobbyists' brains have exploded," he said.

He got the crowd laughing by saying, "Stupid people are ruining America," and "I suppose since I'm running for president, I've got to be politically correct." The audience shot back, "no."

He did not specifically address an analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center that found 84 percent of taxpayers, or all those with incomes of less than $200,000, would pay more taxes under Cain's plan.

Cain backers still liked his plan.

"The tax code is so complex. I just like the fact he wants to shake things up," said Walt Elbik, a Las Vegas retiree.

Expectations here were highest for Perry. He's well-known to the activists, endorsed by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, and experienced in dealing with issues of most concern to Western states, notably energy production and illegal immigration.

Perry tried to speak as an old friend, offering promises to boost domestic energy production and impose a flat tax. He gave no details of the tax.

Perry, who has fallen from the top tier in most national polls after a series of lackluster debate performances, told the 300 activists gathered at the Venetian Hotel Showroom that he's the true conservative in the race.

He did not name Romney, but it was clear he was targeting him.

"I am not the candidate of the establishment. You won't hear a lot of shape-shifting nuance from me. I'm going to give the American people a huge unbridled helping of truth," Perry said.

The activists applauded politely.

They were somewhat more animated toward former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who they still regard warmly because he led the 1994 campaign that gave Republicans control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

While Perry spoke from behind a podium and kept looking at notes, Gingrich took a more relaxed approach, walking around the stage with a handheld mike.

He won applause by urging candidates to be more positive.

"I personally will not run any 30-second attack ads, not against Republicans," Gingrich said. He compared Tuesday's exchanges to "kids bickering in the cafeteria" in junior high school.

Perry and Romney got into a furious battle over immigration at the Las Vegas debate, with Perry calling Romney a hypocrite. Perry charged that Romney hired illegal immigrants to work at his home — and persistently interrupted Romney's efforts to reply.

Romney explained that he'd retained a yard-service firm that employed illegal aliens without his knowledge, and he had them fired when he learned. He also told Perry that if he wants to be president, he has to be a better listener.

Perry had hoped for sympathy from the Wednesday crowd.

Instead, he got skepticism.

"I like good leadership, and I don't feel any strong emotion from Perry," said Bryson Smith, who works for a video company in Gilroy, Calif.

"Something about him doesn't quite convince me he's ready to be president. I can't quite put my finger on it," added Bernice Delabarre, a retired contract specialist from Boulder City, Nev.

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