AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry has the opportunity for a political do-over this week in a critical debate that he hopes will get his sagging campaign back on track after subpar debate performances and a plunge in the polls.
Conversely, another poor showing in Tuesday's Republican debate in New Hampshire could plunge him deeper into a hole, making it even harder for the one-time GOP front-runner to regain the momentum he enjoyed in the opening weeks of his campaign.
Perry's performance at the last debate in Florida was universally panned and contributed to a downturn that knocked him out of the lead in the Republican nomination battle. While Perry was falling, Atlanta businessman Herman Cain was surging, and Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, was holding steady as the current front-runner.
A new Granite State Poll in New Hampshire, which conducts the first-in-the-nation primary, showed Perry in fifth place with only 4 percent, while Romney was a strong first place with 37 percent. But other recent national polls placed Perry toward the front of the pack, in second or third place, despite his drop in support.
In a positive development for Perry last week, his campaign announced that the governor had scooped up a hefty $17 million in contributions in just seven weeks. Perry also delivered a well-received speech to conservative activists in Washington, D.C., on Friday, although a controversy ensued after Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who endorsed Perry at the event, later described the Mormon faith as a "cult." Romney is a Mormon.
Perry needs to appear articulate and focused in Tuesday's debate and would be well-advised to avoid petty -- and distracting -- exchanges with Romney and other candidates, some analysts said. Sponsored by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News, the debate at Dartmouth College will focus on the economy, giving Perry an opening to spotlight the centerpiece of his campaign -- his pledge to "get America working again."
"He's got to communicate his positions ... in a way that doesn't look like he just woke up this morning and had the idea," said Chris Ingram, a Republican consultant in Tampa who is not aligned with a candidate. "He's got to quit worrying about the zingers on Mitt Romney and really focus on what the problem is, what Rick Perry's solution is, and how he's going to execute it."
Perry's opponents, though, may be likely to continue attacks on what they perceive as Perry weaknesses -- his depiction of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and his support of a 2001 Texas law allowing illegal immigrants to receive in-state college tuition. Perry has defended his position on those issues, saying he has no intention of dismantling Social Security benefits for elderly Americans and portraying himself as the toughest candidate in the race when it comes to dealing with border security.
Other issues that have surfaced since the last debate could emerge in Tuesday's nationally televised confrontation.
The Post reported that the Perry family used a hunting camp with a racially offensive name, but Perry's campaign said the family painted over the name and strongly rejects racial intolerance. Even some of Perry's critics in the Legislature defended the governor and said he is not a racist.
Religion also entered the picture last week after Jeffress, pastor of the 10,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas, endorsed Perry at the conservative Values Voters Summit and later told reporters that Mormonism is a cult. Romney and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another GOP presidential contender, are both Mormons. Perry spokesman Mark Miner said Perry does not share Jeffress' opinion, saying the governor "does not believe it is a cult." Jeffress did not mention Perry rivals in his endorsement but made it clear he prefers Perry over Romney.
Perry, who practiced in a mock debate before his first debate in California, cleared his schedule of public events Sunday and today. Campaign spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger declined to say whether the governor plans to use that period for debate preparation, saying the campaign does not discuss internal strategy. "The best thing he can do right now -- and is doing -- to prepare for the debate is to talk to everyday Americans," she said.
Political experts said Perry's efforts to reboot his campaign obviously will go beyond the debates and will presumably emphasize his proven strength at fundraising and grassroots campaigning. Perry, who has never lost a race, has a team of longtime advisers who have assembled well-organized operations in key states.
"When you start a race with such fanfare, you're going to hit a few potholes, and it depends on how he reacts to that," said Chip Felkel, an unaligned consultant in Greenville, S.C. "I don't believe by any stretch of the imagination he's out of it."
Pamela Tucker of Greenland, N.H., the state's deputy House speaker and a Perry supporter, said the governor got a strong reception at recent appearances in New Hampshire. "He was right on message with jobs and the economy, and he did really well," she said. "As he continues to talk to voters, his poll numbers will go up."
But others say that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for Perry to regain lost support from conservative Tea Party activists because of his backing of the in-state tuition law, which generated charges that he is soft on illegal immigration. His 2007 order requiring Texas schoolgirls to be immunized for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer has also generated a backlash among Tea Party activists.
"He's been on the other side of some issues that concern people of New Hampshire," said Karen Testerman of Franklin, N.H., founder of Cornerstone Policy Research, a conservative think tank. "It appears to me he has declined in support."
Testerman hasn't endorsed a candidate, but she said Perry is "not on my short list."
Despite Cain's recent surge, some experts say they believe that the GOP race remains essentially what it has been since the outset -- a two-man scramble between Romney and Perry -- and Perry, they say, could still pull it back together.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., said, "This is such a fluid race, he could be back in the front-runner seat a month from now."
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