By Boyer, Peter J.
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 17
Byline: Peter J. Boyer
The Texas governor went from frontrunner to roadkill in a matter of weeks. His hunt for the way back.
"I want to share one little story that happened to me," Rick Perry says, sounding almost wistful as he recalls a favorite moment from the early, exuberant days of his presidential campaign--just seven weeks ago.
On a sunny day in late August, Perry's campaign bus made an unscheduled stop in Gaffney, S.C., to give a ride to a local pol, state Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, who'd been a key early supporter. "When we came around the corner to this little restaurant parking lot, there were probably a hundred-plus people there, carrying homemade signs," Perry says. "And so I just got off and dove into the crowd." Witnesses to the moment recall seeing Perry at his essence, the consummate political retailer--touching, listening, connecting as he worked the crowd. Perry noticed that one woman seemed particularly intent as he made his way toward her. "This is a person," Perry thought, "who's really excited about seeing what may be the next president of the United States."
The woman, Shellie Wylie, is a mother of two who runs a small travel agency in Gaffney. She'd come to ask Perry one thing: could he help struggling small businesses like hers? But when her moment came, she broke down, sobbing. Perry took Wylie in his arms and assured her that she would be all right. And Wylie believed. "It was a compassionate moment, one person to another," Wylie recalls. "That sincerity goes a long way. And he meant it." Wylie left that day a committed Perry supporter, convinced that he was the candidate to defeat Barack Obama.
It's understandable that Perry, in a recent conversation with Newsweek, would return to that day, which came near the high-water mark of his candidacy. Perry had been at it for only 10 days at that point; in another week, he'd built a double-digit lead over Mitt Romney in the polls. Then, just as suddenly, came the collapse. The confident, handsome Texan, who'd bounded onto the national stage with the swagger of a natural frontrunner, took his place on the debate circuit and turned into a tongue-tied tackling dummy for his competitors. Perry's ability to work a room or rouse a crowd was legendary, but onstage with a group of antagonists whose ambitions matched his own, he seemed unable to formulate intelligible sentences, much less coherent policy arguments. It was almost comically weird, like those recurring Seinfeld gags when Jerry's latest girlfriend is revealed to have some bizarre flaw ("She has man-hands!"), killing any hope of romance.
Perry's camp blamed his performance on the fact that he had gotten into the race late and hadn't yet found his groove and was keeping too rigorous a schedule. But Perry himself probably answered the question best after last week's smackdown, when he told reporters, "Debates are not my strong suit." It may have been the understatement of the political season.
The rationale for a Perry candidacy had been his promise as the anti-Romney; he was the longest-serving governor of that big red state where business prospered, jobs bloomed, and government got the hell out of the way. "Our most important attribute," he says of himself, "is to have been the chief executive officer that has worked with the private sector to create more jobs than any other state in the nation during the decade of the 2000s."
That message, the Perry camp knows, has been obscured by the candidate's stumbling performances onstage. Asked by Newsweek how he meant to prepare for last week's debate in New Hampshire--framed by the political press as his do-or-die moment--Perry said, "My job is to fend off the arrows, fend off the attacks, and to pivot back to what is obviously the most important issue to the America people: jobs." His campaign team prepped him hard for the exchange and made sure he got enough rest before the event. …