Rick Perry ended last week with conservative leaders and activsts openly mocking his performance in a debate and expressing serious doubts about his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination.
And the bleeding didn't stop over the weekend.
On Saturday, Perry was trounced in the "Presidency 5" straw poll in Orlando ... by Herman Cain. Yes, it's easy to make too much of straw polls, but there seems to be a clear cause-and-effect relationship between Perry's miserable debate showing on Thursday night and the Orlando result on Saturday.
After all, Perry's campaign had invested considerable resources in the straw poll, courting delegates with robocalls and organizing an elaborate breakfast Saturday morning, at which the candidate spoke. This was an event he very much wanted to win, and it's also one that he should have won, given that his main rival, Mitt Romney, did not contest it. The promise of Perry's candidacy was that he'd energize and unify the party's activist base, voters who had been searching for a savior -- and who are most likely to show up at straw polls. As of the middle of last week, it was widely assumed that Perry would win the Romney-less P5 event with ease.
Instead, Cain did, capturing 37 percent to Perry's 15 and Romney's 14. It helped that Cain addressed the convention hall personally (Perry skipped town after his breakfast), but it seems the GOP activists' sudden interest in him was a product of their disappointment in Perry. As the St. Petersburg Times' Adam Smith explained:
Throughout the Orange County Convention Center, formerly enthusiastic Perry supporters backed away, saying his debate performance left them uneasy about his ability to take on the president. While debates are dominated by talking points and rehearsed one-liners, they've also been drawing big ratings. And in Perry's case, Thursday's debate proved how they can make or break a campaign.
Romney, much more than Perry, can afford to fare poorly in straw polls. If conservative activists flock to Romney, it will be late in the process and with reluctance -- only after they've concluded that there's no white knight to save them and that at least Romney is well-positioned to defeat President Obama. But Perry is supposed to be the guy the base wants to support. Getting massacred in a straw poll by a second-tier candidate is a clear sign of trouble for him.
So is the latest uptick in Chris Christie chatter, which featured prominently on the Sunday political shows. A Wall Street Journal story that was published online late Sunday said that "a determined cadre of Republican donors" -- big fish from the Northeast and West Coast, apparently -- is pushing hard to convince the New Jersey governor to enter the GOP race. Christie is actually scheduled to deliver a speech at the Reagan Library in California this week, although there's still no sign he's reconsidering his longstanding refusal to run.
But the simple fact that so many Republicans are at this late date pleading with a second-year governor to come to their rescue is damning to the entire GOP field -- but to Perry in particular. Again, it reflects his failure, so far at least, to live up to the promise of his candidacy, which was to unite both the party's base and its more pragmatic, November-minded elites. But Perry's dismal debate performances and overheated campaign trail antics have raised serious concerns among those elites about his fitness to represent their party in a national election.
The Christie talk even made its way onto the season premiere of "Saturday Night Live," which presented a mock Republican debate in which Perry was portrayed by Alec Baldwin as sleepy, gaffe-prone, and incapable of formulating coherent sentences. The skit ended with the moderator announcing, "As a reminder to Chris Christie, it's wide open, buddy."
It wouldn't seem so wide open if Perry hadn't revealed himself to be such a flawed candidate these past six weeks. Now his task is more complicated than it was when he entered the race. Back then, he was greeted by a base that was desperate for a "pure" alternative and with party elites who would like to give the base what it wants, so long as what the base wants is electable. But now the base has real doubts about his ideological purity, particularly on immigration, and his basic competence as a candidate. And there are polls showing him faring markedly worse against Obama than Romney.
If there's a silver lining for Perry in all of this, it may be that the bar has been lowered for him going forward. Which means that a decent performance in the next debate (on October 11) could potentially have an inflated impact. Something tells me he'll be doing a lot of rehearsing between now and then.