After a pour fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will return home to reassess his campaign. That’s usually code for dropping out, but a final decision hasn’t been made.
The signs of a possible drop out were evident as soon as I met with a couple of Perry campaign staff after the returns started coming in. One simply said “We did it Campaign 101. The most precinct captains. Strong ground game. Message. I don’t know.” They had 500 volunteers from 32 states trained up and scattered all over Iowa in the closing days, working long hard hours since Boxing Day to cover just about every inch of the state.
There was also, at that moment, a serious discussion going on upstairs in the hotel between Gov. Perry, his family and a few close advisers regarding the campaign’s future. I asked if a drop out was possible, and the long time adviser said he didn’t know. This particular staffer always knows. Bad sign.
In the Perry event room itself, the mood wasn’t exactly down or up. It was hard to read. Maybe a muted defiance laced with disbelief. Rick Perry had never lost an election before. He was 9-0. One caucus surrogate told a pair of others to “Buckle up, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
A few minutes before Gov. Perry returned to the stage with his family to address his supporters, the big screen flared to life with Perry’s ads and videos, one after the other, strong and positive ads. The mood in the room lifted, and two videos — one featuring war veterans supporting Perry, and the other featuring the governor’s wife Anita — drew sustained cheers. When Perry read a letter from a supporter who had “visited 1000 homes” to support the governor and then mentioned his willingness to work for him in South Carolina, the crowd roared. That seemed be a hint.
Then came the line that took the air out of the room: “With the voters decision tonight in Iowa, I have decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus, and determine if there is a path forward for myself in this race.”
A woman in the crowd near me reacted, “There is!”
After his speech, the room cleared quickly.
Logically there is a path forward, while optically there probably isn’t. Ronald Reagan didn’t win Iowa in 1980 but we all know how that turned out. New Hampshire may not validate anything coming out of Iowa. Jon Huntsman will make a stand of some sort there, and he must take on Romney to have any hope of winning. Newt Gingrich may well launch that revenge candidacy I wrote about earlier. That will change the race, driving both his and Mitt Romney’s negatives up, maybe sky high. Despite his strong showing tonight, Rick Santorum remains a candidate without much of a campaign and his record is unvetted. The big question of his campaign right now is simple: Does it have legs, especially in New Hampshire, where Santorum’s deeply socially conservative message probably won’t play as well as it did in Iowa. He will face a massive air campaign by a very organized Romney machine. Ron Paul’s best shot left him in a disappointing third, and in the end his foreign policy views render him unelectable. The divided vote shows continuing weakness in Romney. There are two debates coming in the next week, debates in which Santorum and Gingrich are sure to attack Romney and in which Santorum is about to get his turn as the candidate of the moment, moments which have ended up with sinking candidates. All of this leaves an opening for someone to make a move, and Bachmann’s sixth place finish rules her out. Perry has money and a ground game but had already signaled he would skip New Hampshire and is low in the polls in South Carolina, where he would logically make his stand. Fundraising will get tough after placing fifth in Iowa and there is much ground to be made up.
The 13 debates leading up to Iowa may have changed the rules of campaigning this year. The politics 101 route just may not cut it anymore. Candidacies that were not otherwise viable by the traditional rules — no money, or staff, or rationale — lasted longer than they would have in a typical year, keeping the field crowded. One candidate who was viable at least on paper, former MN Gov. Tim Pawlenty, went to an early exit. Records have mattered less than bites and lines and gaffes. Debates led to media exposure which led to buoyancy in the polls, which led to vetting and sinking and the rise of someone else. It has been a vicious cycle that Rick Santorum managed to time to perfection.
Congratulations are in order for Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. Santorum roared in from single digits to the head of the pack in the span of a week. Iowa’s choices have probably led to Romney capturing the GOP nomination eventually. But who knows, really? If the rules have changed as much as they seem to have, the machine aspects of campaigning may have rusted out.
Update: The governor is staying in the race and heading to South Carolina.