AUSTIN, Texas — Bounding into the lead within days after announcing his bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry seemed like he was on a history-making path to follow his predecessor, George W. Bush, all the way to the White House.
In less than three months, Perry has nosedived in the polls and is drawing comparisons with candidates from past races who showed early promise but quickly tanked. Now the question often asked is whether Perry's quest for the presidency is nearing an end or poised for a new beginning and an ultimate rebound.
"The polls go up and down, but when it comes to jobs, conservative record, policy initiatives and resources, Perry is well-positioned to win," insists Ray Sullivan, Perry's communications director. And, to varying degrees, a number of independent analysts share that assessment, saying it's far too early to dismiss Texas' longest-serving governor as a spent force in the national political arena.
Perry's strategy for winning — and rebounding from his slide in the polls — rests on a number of factors, including $17 million in fundraising, aggressive campaigning on television and social media, more selective engagement in debates, magnifying his jobs-oriented economic message, and intense personal campaigning to accent Perry's proven skills at working a crowd.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
Another under-the-radar resource is what veteran Republican strategist Mary Matalin describes as "boots on the ground" — crisp campaign organizations in key states to carry out the door knocking, phone calling and other political grunt work needed for victory.
The campaign is putting much of its energy toward the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, the first voting in the 2012 race, where a strong showing is vital to reignite his campaign. Perry began running ads in the state last week and will be back in Iowa for personal appearances next week.
The campaign also has bolstered its central team in Austin with seven additional strategists, nearly all of whom have experience in past presidential races going back to the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980.
One prominent hire is Joe Allbaugh, a 6-foot-4 Oklahoman who was Bush's presidential campaign manager in 2000 and later became head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Allbaugh, one of three new senior advisers on the Perry team, is a nuts-and-bolts administrator who will be charged with "making the trains run on time," as one Republican close to the campaign described it.
Matalin, who is not affiliated with any campaign, is among the analysts who believe that Perry remains a strong candidate, largely dismissing his current poor showing in the polls.
"He's a fighter," she says, adding that Perry "course-corrects quickly" and has "all the tools in place" needed for a successful campaign, including money and teams of seasoned political operatives in the early contest states.
Nevertheless, Perry's slide has caused jitters even among supporters and has prompted continued speculation on blogs and political talk shows that his candidacy could be in free fall.
"I think it's going to be tough for him to pull it out," says George Strake of Houston, a former Texas Republican Party chairman and Perry supporter who helped raise at least $25,000 for the governor's presidential race. Strake says he believes that Perry "would make a great president" but has been hurt by attacks on his record and squabbling with other Republican candidates, notably former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Perry quickly acquired a double-digit lead over Romney, his principal rival, after announcing his candidacy Aug. 13 at a conservative bloggers convention in South Carolina. The showing prompted speculation among some analysts that a Perry nomination seemed almost inevitable.
But poor performances in debates and questions over his position on immigration caused a continued plunge in support, particularly among many tea party activists who initially embraced his candidacy. Matalin says that Perry's entry as front-runner put him at a disadvantage, turning him into a "pinata" for attacks by his rivals.
Polls last week were particularly gruesome from the Perry point of view. While Atlanta businessman Herman Cain continued to surge and overtook Romney in at least two national polls, Perry was falling deeper into the pack and dropping into single digits in some surveys. He was in fifth place with 6 percent in a CBS News/New York Times poll, and fourth with 10 percent in a Fox News poll.
"I think he's in a lot of trouble," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "It's not over for him, but it's going to be difficult for him to get traction."
Perry's downward trajectory has prompted some to wonder if the current Texas governor — instead of following George W. Bush's road to the White House — isn't headed in the same direction as yet another Texan who occupied the governor's office. Democrat-turned-Republican John Connally. Connally, a popular Texas governor in the 1960s, ran a well-funded campaign for president in 1980 but dropped out after spending $11 million and getting one delegate in Arkansas.
Others say they believe Perry could follow a more recent example. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was widely dismissed after foundering in polls in 2008 but rebounded and seized the Republican nomination to run against Barack Obama.
"I think he's in a bit of a hole, but I think it's still winnable for him," says Keith Appell, a Republican strategist in Alexandria, Va., who credits Perry for bringing in "some outstanding talent" to augment his central campaign organization.
Perry, who repeatedly has acknowledged that debates aren't his strong point, may decline to participate in at least some of the upcoming Republican debates, his aides suggested this week.
The Texas governor, who has participated in five debates, remains committed to the next debate in Michigan on Nov. 9, but he will consider subsequent debates on a case-by-case basis, Sullivan says. Despite what he calls "exaggerated" reports in the press, Sullivan says, Perry is not backing away from the debate challenge but wants to make sure that his participation in any debate is the best use of his time.
Sullivan says that Perry's strategy is fundamentally the same as it has been since Day One — to accent Perry's core message to "get America back to work" by replicating on a national level Texas' success at job creation and economic growth.
Perry last week outlined a sweeping economic plan that includes a 20 percent optional flat tax after earlier unveiling a proposal to create 1.2 million jobs through expanded domestic energy production. Other policy initiatives are forthcoming, Sullivan says. "Stay tuned," he says.
Money is a fundamental ingredient of Perry's long-term survivability in the race. Perry raised $17 million in the first seven weeks of his candidacy and participates in fundraising events whenever he travels.
Although Perry's drop in the polls raises the prospect that potential givers will shift to other candidates, Sullivan says that fundraising "continues to go well and be strong."
"We have ample resources to compete," he says.
The campaign cash enables Perry to make blue-ribbon hires and finance an aggressive ad campaign that essentially will be what the military would describe as a "force multiplier" in key states.
The first ads in Iowa started running last week, focusing on Perry's promise to create at least 2.5 million American jobs; future negative ads seem almost inevitable, given the high stakes for Perry. Sullivan declines to say what's in store, but he acknowledges that future ads will likely "draw contrasts" with other candidates.
(Dave Montgomery is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Steven Thomma on Twitter
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington