Rick Perry's real problem: He's not wearing well

Once the front-runner in polls, Rick Perry has fallen precipitously and is now tied with Herman Cain at 14 percent in an ABC/Washington Post survey. Mitt Romney has regained the top spot in this poll.

Jim Cole/AP
Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaks during a 2012 campaign event Saturday, in Hampton, New Hampshire.

For Texas Gov. Rick Perry these are not the best of times. In recent days he’s had to spend precious campaign time defending himself against charges that he leased a hunting camp with a racially offensive name. And Tuesday dawned with more bad news: A new ABC/Washington Post poll shows that his support is evaporating like a puddle in the west Texas sun.

Once the front-runner in polls, Governor Perry has fallen precipitously and is now tied with Herman Cain at 14 percent in the ABC poll. Mitt Romney has regained the top spot in this survey, with 21 percent of Republican-leaning respondents putting him as their first choice for presidential nominee.

The hunting camp flap is not what’s driving these numbers. For the most part, the ABC poll was conducted before that story broke. No, Perry’s real problem appears to be this: GOP voters flocked to him when he was a fresh new face, but he hasn’t worn well. The more they learn about him, the less inclined they are to vote for him. That’s a deadly dynamic for a politician with national ambitions.

You can see this by crunching lots of polls together to find Perry’s peak. According to the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major surveys, the Texas governor rose steadily in popularity until about the middle of September. Then it’s as if his horse tripped and he fell from his saddle. His popularity has plunged in recent weeks. The RealClearPolitics average of polls now puts Mr. Romney in first, as the choice of 23.3 percent of voters, with Perry just behind at 23 percent.

What happened in mid-September? That’s when debate season got rolling. Whether voters watched the debates or not, they appear to have heard much about Perry’s poor performances. It is also possible that publicity about Perry’s description of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” has taken a toll on his support.

You can see this in the details of the new ABC News/Washington Post survey. Forty-four percent of respondents said the more they heard about Perry, the less they liked him. By comparison, 30 percent said the same about Romney.

Asked whether Romney or Perry was the more electable candidate, respondents chose the former, by a wide 51 to 30 percent.

On specific issues, a plurality of 41 percent of GOP voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supported turning Social Security over to the states, as Perry in his recent book implied he would do. A whopping 69 percent of Republicans said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who supports in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, as Perry does.

Oh, and Perry is losing ground to the White House incumbent as well as to his intraparty rivals. According to RealClearPolitics average of his head-to-head matchup with President Obama, the Texas governor is now six percentage points behind the Democrat.

For the Perry camp, these numbers are brutal. It is going to have to figure out a way to reverse the trend line, and fast, if it wants to survive the accelerated start to 2012 GOP voting.

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