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Requiem for a campaign: Rick Perry's rise and fall

Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Rick Perry waits to greet Iowans at the Santa Maria Vineyard and Winery in Carroll, Iowa, Jan. 2, 2012.

 

CHARLESTON, SC -- It was in a cramped Myrtle Beach coffee shop, just hours before the debate that would prove to be his last, when Rick Perry swallowed hard, looked at his wife Anita, and peered into his political future. 

"If I just had to walk away from all this," the governor said, his voice catching on a lump of exhaustion that seemed to have been growing in his throat for days, "If she was walking with me, it'd all be okay." 

To the focus group of mothers gathered in the room, the moment was a touching expression of the couple's love in the face of adversity. But longtime followers of Perry saw something else too: the first real glimmer of the undefeated Texan's understanding that his once-mighty presidential campaign was finally in the last ungraceful throes of its death. 

Two days later, Perry would be peering at the menu board at a Charleston-area Wendy's restaurant and telling top communications aide Ray Sullivan that he'd be ending his five month campaign in the morning.  The press conference was held in a nondescript airport hotel meeting room ... just 14 miles from where he launched his campaign in the glitzy Francis Marion ballroom.

"Now the journey leads us back to Texas," he declared after he suspended his campaign. "Neither discouraged nor disenchanted, but instead rewarded for the experience and resolute to remain in the arena and in the service of a great nation." 

Mark Lambie / El Paso Times via AP

A look at the Texas governor's bid for the Republican presidential nomination.


In his farewell remarks
, Perry thanked advisors Nelson Warfield and Mari Will -- both relative newcomers to his team after an October shakeup that resulted in a deep divide between the governor's old guard and fresh blood. 

Unnamed by the governor in his thank-yous to staff and key endorsers were de-facto campaign chief Joe Allbaugh, onetime manager Rob Johnson, and Perry's original political maestro and friend of 13 years, Dave Carney. 

 

***** 

Everything was going pretty much as planned until Orlando. 

A month after Perry swaggered into the GOP race, a steady stream of fundraisers (which filled up the candidate's schedule at the expense of fulfilling even a fraction of the interview requests that flooded in to Austin) meant that the campaign's war chest was in the same league as Mitt Romney's, the frontrunner in the campaign until that point.

Perry seemed to be aptly navigating away from the Bible-thumping caricature from opponents who snarked about his "calling from God" to run for president and his "praying for rain" in the face of devastating drought. Michele Bachmann's damaging attack over Perry's support for an HPV vaccine for young girls had been substantially blunted by her self-inflicted wound the next day when she overstated the side effects of the medication. 

But after Perry's indignant comment at a Sept. 22 debate that those who opposed offering in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants "don't have a heart," the ascendant governor's momentum was abruptly knocked off course by a lower-than-expected finish in the Presidency 5 straw poll. 

After the loss, spokesman Mark Miner grimly marched into the press area and spun the results as a loss for Romney, surprising reporters used to a cagey press operation that frequently ignored email requests for responses or interviews. But little more was done to mitigate the damage. A full six days later, during an interview with conservative web site Newsmax, Perry finally apologized for the "heartless" comment. 

The night of the P5 loss, Alec Baldwin lampooned Perry as sleepy and disoriented during the season premier of NBC's Saturday Night Live.

The Perry parody, which would go through several iterations before settling on "just plain dumb," was born. 

 

*****

In Orlando, Carney and Johnson met with former Dole aide Nelson Warfield, the strategist who would later be the chief advocate of a controversial television ad taking aim at gay soldiers. Carney brought on Warfield and Washington-based pollster Tony Fabrizio to augment a team swiftly recognizing the consequences of Perry's late entry into the presidential contest. 

"At the end of the day, this thing needed to have started two months before it did," said Perry's South Carolina chair Katon Dawson, who along with Carney and Johnson had defected from Gingrich's flagging campaign in June. 

During the CNBC debate, GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry is unable to remember one of the three government agencies he would eliminate if he were elected to the White House.

At the urging of first lady Anita Perry, Texan strategist Joe Allbaugh also began to help advise the campaign. Allbaugh, George W. Bush's former campaign manager, was preceded by a reputation for steadiness, experience and no-nonsense discipline. 

With the arrival of new talent, a reboot appeared possible. The new team --  including Fabrizio, Warfield and media strategist Curt Anderson  -- instituted a rigorous interview and TV ad schedule for the candidate.

When Perry's utterance of "oops" during CNBC's Michigan debate forever entered the political lexicon on Nov. 7, the campaign responded with an unprecedented swiftness -- ushering the self-deprecating candidate to confront reporters in the debate spin room and scheduling light-hearted media appearances to blunt the damage.

But as Carney and Allbaugh's conflicting visions clashed, communication between the two camps disintegrated. Longtime Texas aides began to be cut out of major discussions. On at least one occasion, Allbaugh chose to meet with consultants at the Steven F. Austin hotel -- across the street from the campaign headquarters on Congress Avenue. 

As Perry publicly insisted to reporters that rumors of campaign manager Rob Johnson's demotion were "just scuttlebutt," the Arkansas native was being dispatched far away from the Austin headquarters to work in early campaign states. Carney was sequestered in New Hampshire. 

The famed "vault" -- the thick-walled box in the center of Perry HQ that had served as Carney and Johnson's office -- stood empty. 

Perry's poll numbers continued their decline, and some of the new class of consultants began to grumble to reporters about the after-effects of early disorganization on the part of Carney and his original team. Longtime Perry loyalists fumed at damaging leaks that went undisciplined by Allbaugh or by the candidate himself. 

"There was a misguided sense from the Washington consultants that the simple-minded Texans messed everything up and they were going to rise to the rescue," said Sullivan. "And it didn't work out that way."

The governor's performances continued to be uneven, with Perry alternating between energetically sharp and distractedly rambling even at consecutive campaign appearances. The staff was sometimes left wondering which version of their candidate would show up on a given day. 

And "oops" haunted him. While advisers later determined that the famed "brain freeze" might have been surmountable were it not for Perry's "heartless" debacle, the narrative cake -- unhelped by Perry's Bush-like drawl and his infirm grasp on issues outside his economic expertise as governor -- was already baked.  Errors big and small were amplified into "yet another oops." 

In New Hampshire, when Perry inaccurately pegged the voting age at 21, the moment launched hundreds of headlines. In Iowa, when Perry misspoke in naming "the country Solyndra" (which he'd correctly identified as a solar energy *company* at scores of campaign events before), observers questioned whether he was aware it was not in fact a sovereign nation.  In South Carolina, Sullivan and traveling spokesman Mark Miner bewilderedly fielded calls from reporters who read in an Los Angeles Times dispatch that Perry had mistaken a mannequin for a human person at a town hall. (He was joking.) 

Every bumble -- real or imagined -- had its cost. 

 

*****

If Perry's endorsement of Newt Gingrich last Thursday served as the funeral ceremony for his campaign, the wake came 16 days earlier when his fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses appeared to snuff out the last flicker of his staff's hopes for salvaging their dreams of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Early December polling indicated a fluid race in Iowa, where Perry had assembled a formidable team and "strike force" operation made up largely of Texas allies. Albeit often in small venues, the campaign still packed in Iowans willing to give Perry a "second look." His debate performances improved, and an unforced error from Romney offering Perry a bet of $10,000 during a Des Moines debate underscored Perry's populist message. 

In the days before launching his 44-stop bus tour in the state, the Texas governor painted the picture of a new man, blaming his early stumbles on pain resulting from his June back surgery, toppling months of denials from Perry's press staff that the operation had any impact on his performances. 

"Frankly I didn't know the impact it was having on me from the standpoint of just being fatigued and it showed up in the first few debates," he said on Sean Hannity's radio program on Jan. 13. "I have never felt better and I think you saw a glimpse of what you can expect out of me as we go forward in that last debate we had in Iowa." 

Again, hope glimmered, but not for long. 

Two weeks before the caucuses, influential conservatives at the Family Leader seemed on the verge of throwing their support behind Perry.

Senior staff in Iowa heard rumblings of the potentially game-changing endorsement from the group on the evening before the Dec. 20 press conference. But the group ultimately declined formal support of any candidate, and its chief members independently boosted Rick Santorum instead. 

Crowds shrunk. After the Christmas holiday, Perry took on Santorum's previous support for earmarks in his most direct negative ad yet, but the slam didn't seem to stick. 

On the morning of Dec. 31, an anonymously sourced story in POLITICO finally aired in spectacular fashion the grievances of the new class of Perry advisers, who eviscerated Carney and Johnson as inept in handling the media and unprepared for the immigration onslaught. 

GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry gets tongue-tied during a recent interview over the name of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. NBC's Carrie Dann reports.

The sting of the story -- particularly burning because of its publication days before the caucuses -- went uncontested by Austin, with the only voice in response being some tempered on-the-record pushback from Sullivan. (Carney, who was only briefly quoted, had long been detached from the campaign.) 

The Texans, concerned about derailing their famously micromanagement-averse boss with internal distractions, never confronted Perry about the story. Defeat was already all but written, in any case. 
They slogged on. 

After Perry announced that he would "reassess" his campaign after the disappointing caucus night finish three days later, Perry's top Texas aides walked out of the ballroom and into the bar at the West Des Moines Sheraton expecting a dropout press conference in Austin within 48 hours. 

As staffers and surrogates mingled until last call in the hotel's Waterfall Grille Restaurant & Lounge - and bartenders scurried into the bar's reserves for extra tequila for the Texans -- they spoke about the campaign in the past tense, and disdain for the Washington consultants flowed as readily as the drinks. (Allbaugh and others had long since retreated to their rooms.)

At one point, journalists still filing their stories in the lobby heard a cheer so deafening that a few sprinted to see what they assumed must be a guest appearance by the governor himself.

It wasn't Perry, but Johnson. Still beloved by the Austin footsoldiers, he offered a rousing speech to his exhausted and relieved team, sporting a navy blue Perry for President fleece -- a gift from the staff -- personalized with just one word: "Hefe." 

The next morning, he -- along with Miner and the rest of the press staff as well as the lead advance men who would be charged with orchestrating the South Carolina Alamo -- found out from the governor's Twitter account that the campaign wasn't over yet. 

****** 

The night of the Iowa loss, Perry gathered with family and his close advisers in a hotel suite to discuss his path forward.  
Backer and close family friend Capt. Dan Moran, a former Marine who suffered severe burns to over half his body after an IED attack in 2006, was in the room.

Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets ready for an interview during a caucus night watch party Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012, in West Des Moines, Iowa.

With Perry's wife and son Griffin on board to continue the campaign, Moran -- whose fierce admiration for the governor had been on display during a series of fiery speeches to Iowa voters that week -- alluded to his own physical struggle in voicing his support for a last-ditch effort to rescue the campaign. 

"Sir, I didn't get these scars on my face to quit," he told the governor. 

By announcing the next morning that he would continue his presidential run into South Carolina, Perry earned a collective "wait, what?" from the political world and from most of his own campaign team. Moran was one of the few who wasn't surprised by the decision. 

With a roiling field and resistance to an "inevitable" Romney nomination, Perry could have been in a position to catch a late wave in the Palmetto State. But even his allies in the state conceded that Perry needed a "lucky break" to begin courting back the social conservatives and veterans most ideologically aligned with his platform. And he'd have to do it with fewer resources, less vocal endorsers, and a badly damaged political brand. 

Gone was the shiny "Faith, Jobs, and Freedom" bus that had schlepped Perry to over 40 cities in Iowa. Gone were the national political backers who loyally stood by his side before the caucuses, as press staff gradually stopped pretending that former advocates Govs. Bobby Jindal or Sam Brownback would be in the state on Perry's behalf. 

And his final gamble backfired. According to aides, it was Perry himself who coined the phrase "vulture capitalism" to describe Romney's practices at investment firm Bain capital.  

But the phrase disappeared from the candidate's vernacular within two days after some Perry backers publicly rebuked him. Previously supportive conservative commentators on FOX News accused him of leaning towards socialism, reducing the creator of over one million jobs in Texas to claiming he is the "probably the most pro-capitalist individual... in America."

"I think that FOX News jumped on us put us back on the mat again," said Dawson. "When they hit us and they stayed on us for a day we fell back again from the little bit of momentum we created by skipping New Hampshire."

Gingrich, who had employed the same line of attack against Romney's Bain days, was ascendant. Perry's poll numbers in the state that was once his conservative firewall dipped below five percent.  

Late in the afternoon on Jan. 18, Perry began informing advisors that he would drop out the following day.

 

***** 

 

Twenty-four hours before telling Sullivan about his decision under the fluorescent lights of a fast-food joint, the governor was praying. 

On stage at a prayer rally in Greenville, S.C., inspired by "The Response" event he masterminded in Texas last summer, Perry delivered remarks almost word-for-word to those he had given before that audience of 30,000 in a football stadium in August, at a time when history-making drought conditions had prompted the governor to urge citizens to pray for rain.

The Texas governor's decision comes after a disappointing campaign and just days before the critical South Carolina primary, NBC News' Carrie Dann reports.

"His agenda’s not a political agenda," Perry said of God to several hundred worshippers -- a crowd tiny in comparison to the August audience packed into the home of the Houston Texans.  "He’s smarter than that. He’s smart enough, wise enough not to get involved with any political affiliation or any institution that man has made. He understands the imperfections of those." 

Sudden rumbling thunder shook the building as he spoke from Psalms 145 of a God who is slow to anger, and Perry raised his right arm to declare "Amen" in answer. 

As the governor left the stage, he was crying. And smiling. 

It was pouring in Greenville.

 

Carrie Dann (or as the candidate nicknamed her, "Lieutenant Dann") covered the Perry campaign as an embedded reporter for NBC News. Explore more of her Decision 2012 work here.