New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie doesn’t have to look far for a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of jumping into the presidential contest late, with great expectations, but little vetting beyond the relatively comfortable confines of one’s home state.
As Christie continues to deliberate about entering the Republican presidential nomination fray, he has no doubt followed the supremely lousy weeks Texas Gov. Rick Perry has had since he got in, relatively late, with great fanfare, and largely untested on a national stage.
As Republican pollster Whit Ayres says: “It’s windy at the top.”
Perry’s latest buffeting came at the hands of The Washington Post, which reported that a rock at the entrance to a hunting camp Perry has used was once painted with a name that incorporated the N-word. And the Associated Press, which detailed Perry’s courting of subprime lenders that cost Texas taxpayers more than $35 million and a wave of foreclosures.
On their own, neither story is lethal to Perry’s stumbling campaign, say Republican strategists like Ron Bonjean. But they have kept Perry off his message, and unable to rewrite the developing narrative — fed by his poor debate performances — that he’s not ready for prime time.
“He’s supposed to be driving the message that he’s the frontrunner, and instead has had to play defense on immigration, and state issues like the rock and the subprime stuff,” Bonjean says.
What about the hunting camp rock story?
“A tempest in a teapot,” says Ayres, who is advising GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Utah’s former governor. “That being said, it is part and parcel of running for president.”
Ayres recalled a story from 1995, when GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, running for president, gave his opponents an opening when he was unable to answer a reporter’s question in New Hampshire about the cost of a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. (Alexander was later overheard asking an aide to get the information.)
That’s not quite the same as the controversies Perry’s wrestling with now. But as Alexander — himself a former governor — told ABC News recently: “Going from governor to presidential primaries is like going from eighth grade basketball to the NBA finals and you have to be careful. People expect something of a president.”
Even before this past weekend, Perry’s star appeared to be falling among top Republican political activists polled by the Huffington Post’s Pollster.com. Since he entered the race in August, Perry has led previous frontrunner Mitt Romney in 17 polls.
But last week, Pollster.com’s “GOP Power Outsiders” survey of 160 Republican activists in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina showed a rapid turn away from Perry. Fifty-seven percent said their impression of Perry had “grown less favorable” in the previous three weeks, during which Perry participated in his first two presidential debates and sustained attacks from opponents on issues ranging from his support of the HPV vaccine for Texas schoolgirls, to allowing children of illegal immigrants to qualify for in-state college tuition.
During that same period, 47 percent of those activists surveyed said they viewed Romney more favorably than before.
“To be clear, our survey does not measure voter preference,” said Pollster.com’s Mark Blumenthal. “We try to get a hook into the invisible campaign, the folks who focus on electability.”
“They already had concerns about Perry’s performance in the debates, and some of his issue positions,” Blumenthal said.
That’s good news and bad news for Christie who, if he gets in, would face enormous pressures to raise money and to get a national campaign together before the front-loaded caucus-and-primary season begin three months – or less.
Good news in that Perry has failed to capture the imagination of the base, and bad news that the intense scrutiny of a presidential campaign can unnerve even a confident campaigner who was wooed to enter.
John Stineman, a GOP strategist in Iowa, says he’s watched the Michele Bachmann surge there become the Perry surge and now the surge of excitement for a Christie run, all tinged with desperation for a white knight. It’s a narrative, Stineman says, where the characters matter less than the plot, which wraps up with President Obama’s defeat next fall.
Though the Perry campaign has lost its footing for now, Christie, if he gets in, should not expect his fellow Republican governor to be gone anytime soon. Perry is spending money in the early states, and has staff. He has to have a good debate next week in New Hampshire; some ready answers for questions about the hunting club rock, the subprime lenders; and a fundraising quarter that shows he still is mustering support.
And Perry may very well welcome Christie to the race as the next great thing.
He’s seen how well that scenario has worked out, so far, for Romney.