Rick Perry's Campaign: We're Not Dead Yet : It's All Politics Four years ago, the Texas governor was sitting atop the GOP presidential polls. Now, his campaign has run out of money, and he's struggling to survive. But loyalists say there's still a path forward.
NPR logo Rick Perry's Campaign: We're Not Dead Yet

Rick Perry's Campaign: We're Not Dead Yet

Republican presidential candidate former Texas Gov. Rick Perry waves his arms while participating in the Fourth of July parade festivities in Amherst, N.H., Saturday, July 4, 2015. Cheryl Senter/AP hide caption

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Cheryl Senter/AP

Republican presidential candidate former Texas Gov. Rick Perry waves his arms while participating in the Fourth of July parade festivities in Amherst, N.H., Saturday, July 4, 2015.

Cheryl Senter/AP

Four years ago, Rick Perry hadn't even announced his campaign for president, but the Texas governor was soaring atop the polls and was a top threat for the GOP nomination.

But after the infamous "oops" moment at a 2012 debate that sealed his fate in that race, the Perry 2.0 reboot that the now-former governor envisioned hasn't gone according to plan.

Campaign funds have dried up, and he's quit paying his campaign staff, raising speculation he could soon be the first 2016 casualty. Despite better reviews on the campaign trail, more energy and another four years in office to tout his accomplishments, the folksy Republican has gotten overshadowed by flashier, newer candidates in the crowded field.

"Has he rebuilt his political brand from the last race?" asked Bruce Haynes, a GOP strategist with South Carolina ties and president of the bipartisan firm Purple Strategies. "You look at the polls, and you look at his bank account, and the answer seems to be no."

Debate Loss Sting

The biggest blow to Perry's hopes of a 2016 do-over may have come last week when he narrowly missed the main presidential debate stage. Badly needing a chance to make a second impression after disastrous debates four years ago, Perry was instead relegated to the lower-tier debate that afternoon. And even in that debate, it was former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, not Perry, who shined.

"Both of those debates together were an earthquake and an aftershock," Haynes said. "At some point, there was going to be some reckoning — perhaps this is the beginning."

Missing out on the main debate stage on Thursday night was a blow to Perry, who needed to rebound from disastrous debate performances four years ago. Andrew Harnik/AP hide caption

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Andrew Harnik/AP

But Perry loyalists argue that Perry, who was at the time the country's longest-serving governor, should not be counted out just yet. Perry campaign manager Jeff Miller confirmed to NPR that the campaign's payroll had been cut off but dismissed the speculation that the campaign was about to flatline. The Washington Post first reported the news. Many aides have kept working for Perry, even on an unpaid basis.

"As the campaign moves along, tough decisions have to be made in respect to both monetary and time related resources," Miller said in a statement. "Governor Perry remains committed to competing in the early states and will continue to have a strong presence in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.'

'He's The Tortoise'

Henry Barbour, a longtime GOP strategist and friend of Perry's, said the focus this time was on the long game.

"In 2012 he was the hare. This time he's the tortoise," argued Barbour, who is an informal consultant to Perry but was never on the campaign payroll. "He just has to be steady, methodical and patient."

Perry's best chance to survive may lay in the hands of Barbour's brother, Austin, who as senior adviser to Perry's superPAC. He told NBC that their group had been planning "for several weeks" to fill the void after a dismal $1.1 million haul by the campaign for the latest fundraising quarter.

"We saw several weeks ago when the campaign-finance reports first came out that this was probably going to happen with the campaign," Austin Barbour said, "that they were going to have to go to a lean and mean operation that focused more on the governor's travel, doing events in the states ... and the first three debates."

Perry's superPAC, the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, raised nearly $17 million last quarter.

But while Perry loyalists may be sticking by him for now, others note to remember that politics can be a dirty game, where everyone wants to be on the winning team.

"People believe in their candidates, but they also want to be in the game," Haynes noted. "At some point, another candidate is going to come along, and your organization is going to begin to fall apart at the seams."

How To Stay Alive

Strategists say Perry should focus on retail politicking he excels at in places like Iowa to help resuscitate his campaign. Charlie Neibergall/AP hide caption

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Charlie Neibergall/AP

Strategists say Perry should focus on retail politicking he excels at in places like Iowa to help resuscitate his campaign.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

Presidential candidates that seemed dead have been resuscitated before. Arizona Sen. John McCain experienced a similar collapse during the summer of 2007 before rebounding to win the GOP nomination.

And underdog Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — who is running again and is polling below Perry — employed a grassroots strategy in 2012 that propelled him to an upset win in Iowa and carried him along for months.

But unfortunately for Perry, the field is not just bigger but far different than the past two cycles. He doesn't have the national media appeal McCain had or the ability to draw earned media from his "Straight Talk Express."

Longtime GOP strategist Charlie Black, who was a top McCain adviser, said Perry's situation is different.

"In McCain's case, he had a reservoir of previous donors who would still stick with him," Black said. "We did raise some money, but we just scaled way back."

Black also noted that Perry has a superPAC to fall back on — something they didn't have in a pre-Citizens United world in 2008. But relying on a superPAC still isn't a substitute for an actual campaign, since they can't coordinate with the candidate himself or finance things like travel.

"Just the basics of getting him around and the campaign advance work — tough — they're going to need several million," Black said. "SuperPACs can do some, but not all."

Perry also isn't even the only Texan in the race this time. The state's freshman junior senator Ted Cruz made it onto the main debate stage above the Lone Star State's 14-year-long chief executive.

Texas-based GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said that Cruz's rise, combined with Perry's financial struggles, difficulty at rebranding himself and a still-looming indictment, have been "the perfect storm."

"He had a narrow path," Mackowiak said. "Now it's a lot more narrow and a lot less pleasant."

For Perry, he needs to get back to the basics where he shines — grassroots, retail politicking that is the key to winning first caucus state Iowa. And even on a shoestring budget that might include sleeping in supporters' houses rather than hotels, it could still work.

"He needs to move to Iowa, play up his agriculture background, his military background and show his retail skills," Mackowiak said. "It could start paying dividends."