Perry backers worry time is running short

Rick Perry supporters are nervous that the Texas governor won’t improve enough as a debater to be able to rally conservatives to his side and emerge as the counterweight to Mitt Romney. 

The former Massachusetts governor is back on top of the polls as Perry has fallen. But the two men appeal to different wings of the party — Romney’s strength is with the centrists, while conservatives like Perry.

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The problem is, conservatives also like businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

Their failure to coalesce around a single candidate has allowed Romney to emerge as the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination.

Perry did not make any major flubs or gaffes at Tuesday night’s Bloomberg News/Washington Post debate, but he faded into the background too often — especially considering that the focus was on economics, one of Perry’s policy strengths. 

He also appeared sullen and uncomfortable and failed to focus on his record as a job creator until much too late in the evening.

Some of his supporters on Wednesday expressed disappointment in Perry’s performance.

“As a Perry supporter, I was very disappointed at a number of occasions in the debate. … Perry hasn’t demonstrated an ability to either land an attack or defend himself and then land an attack,” said one Republican strategist who backs Perry. “He couldn’t land a punch on the economic issues and he didn’t even talk about the Texas jobs record until the second hour … and how you don’t have your economic plan ready for a debate on Bloomberg, I don’t know.”

That strategist said Perry did better Tuesday than he had in previous debates by avoiding any gaffes or slip-ups, but he needed to do more than that — and that the window of opportunity for Perry to be able to close out the other conservative candidates was all but shut at this point.

“The dynamic that scares me most is he’s quickly not becoming the inevitable Romney alternative, and he needed that process to happen quickly,” the strategist said. “I think now no one has to get out before January. Cain went from someone who was not a factor to one who’s now a major factor. Now it’s a problem — if Romney goes into Iowa with a divided conservative vote and does well, that makes it very hard for Perry.”

Perry spokesman Mark Miner did not argue that his boss had turned in a stellar debate performance, but downplayed the importance of debates.

“The debate was fairly unorganized — he followed the rules and answered the questions shortly and directly,” Miner said. “But the political graveyard is full of candidates who underestimated him in the past. … This is going to be won on the ground in the states, and we will have the necessary resources to run a credible campaign and work toward a victory.”

Henry Barbour, another Perry backer and a top GOP strategist, did not defend the Texas governor’s debate performance but said that he thought there was plenty of time for him to recover.

“The Republican nomination wasn’t decided yesterday and isn’t going to be decided today or tomorrow. This is a long process, and the notion that one debate, one speech is going to decide this race, I think, is incorrect,” Barbour said. “We’ve got to run a good campaign, we do have to turn around and regain the momentum. But this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Supporters point out that Perry is the only candidate who has the money to go toe to toe with Romney nationally, and that they expect Perry to be the last man standing against the former Massachusetts governor, but there are some concerns about whether that could happen in time to halt Romney’s momentum.

Matt Mackowiak, another Republican strategist in Perry’s corner, agreed that Perry needs to do better with conservatives than he has so far. 

“The key moment here is when does the conservative movement unite behind Perry — is it before Iowa?” he asked. “Because if it’s after Iowa and Romney wins Iowa, it’ll be too late.”