The higher the hopes, the harder the fall.
Rick Perry’s announcement Aug. 13 that he was seeking the GOP nomination created a rush of excitement among Republicans dissatisfied with the field of candidates. With his folksy charm and red-state credentials as governor of Texas, he quickly surged ahead in the polls and pulled in some fast dollars.
But the starry-eyed expectations that the boy from Paint Creek could be the next Ronald Reagan bumped up against the hard reality that he just wasn’t well enough prepared to run a strong presidential campaign, political experts say.
“Sometimes someone who looks like a superstar in a particular state can just crash and burn once they’re on the national stage – it’s a tough, tough arena,” says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.
Perry at one point represented the tantalizing potential to build coalitions between establishment and tea party Republicans. “When he does this poorly and is forced to drop out before the primary in the most conservative state, it’s a dramatic story, and is going to be disappointing to a lot of Republicans,” Professor Zelizer says.
Governor Perry ended his campaign Thursday morning, throwing his support behind Newt Gingrich just days before the South Carolina primary. “I know when it’s time to make a strategic retreat,” he said in a press conference. “Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?”
After peaking in national polls with 38 percent support among likely Republican voters at the end of August, according to the RealClearPolitics tracker, Perry lost steam as he made a series of gaffes in nationally televised debates. Following his disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, his support was down to just 4 percent in the South Carolina polls this week.
The No. 1 lesson is the need for preparation, several experts say.
“It matters if you’ve given your stump speech a thousand times so that you can remember the three Cabinet departments you’re going to close,” Mr. Sabato says, referring to the famous November debate in which Perry said he’d close Commerce and Education, but then admitted with an “oops” that he couldn’t remember the third one. Later he recalled it was the Department of Energy.
Perry gained attention for another unflattering moment when people speculated (and he denied) that alcohol or pain medication might have fueled his giddy speech at a gala in New Hampshire – which went viral on Youtube.
He tried for redemption by poking fun at himself on late-night television, but for many voters, it was apparently just too late.
“This office is one that requires real skill, and to run for it you’ve got to be prepared to be put through the meat grinder,” says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
Front-runner Mitt Romney gained tremendous experience through his 2008 campaign, Geer says, and Newt Gingrich, who’s been gaining on him in South Carolina in recent days, has done his share of time in the national spotlight.
But Perry’s success in Texas just didn’t translate, partly because he lacked the on-the-ground organization and fund-raising capacity he needed in the early voting states.
Perry may wish that debates hadn’t dominated the process so much. But when it comes to a vetting process that reveals the flaws of a candidate, “I think Republicans are happy to discover them before, rather than three months from now when he has the delegates,” says Zelizer.
The Perry campaign didn’t completely lack a sense of strategy, as his exit illustrates.
By supporting Gingrich as the anti-Romney candidate, “if Gingrich pulls off an upset [in South Carolina], all of a sudden [Perry] is standing tall and he will have his clout still in the Republican Party,” Zelizer says. “He can walk away from a tough few months bruised, but not totally defeated.”