Unlike the Iowa Straw Poll, which has been around for a long time and has some relevance to the caucuses in that state, there is little reason to take the Florida Straw Poll conducted yesterday all that seriously. Even some of those who voted for Herman Cain, who was the unexpected winner, understood he has no chance to be elected president. But the fact Rick Perry competed and lost was more significant than Cain’s win.
Unlike Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann, who wisely passed on the Florida poll, Perry went all out to win it and failed. Coming on the heels of his awful performance in the Orlando debate that preceded the event on Thursday, the campaign of the Texas governor looks to be in a free fall. The question for Perry is increasingly becoming not so much how he recovers his mojo as the frontrunner, but will he survive the grueling run up to the caucuses and primaries?
It is hard to muster a case for optimism for Perry right now. Though he entered the race as a conservative savior and amassed a huge lead in the polls, the debates have exposed him. He has come across not merely as a poor debater but as someone without focus or energy. The attacks on his record from Romney and Bachmann as well as other candidates have hurt, but not as much as his own inability to offer a confident and articulate counter-attack. Yet, the willingness to write Perry off may be a bit premature.
Future debates will give Perry a chance to erase the fumbling impression he left the public with this past week. After three straight poor performances, his chances of winning the next one or two may seem dim, but we should remember, Perry is not a political novice. He may not have been prepared for the national stage, but this is a man who has won races in a large state. If he is willing to work at it, he could improve or at least not embarrass himself again.
Second, the real danger for Perry is his stance on immigration has allowed Romney to slip to the right of him on at least this one issue. This is crucial, because no matter how poor his competition fares, Romney must win over some conservatives if he is to win the nomination. But as much as rousing the rabble over the possibility the children of illegal immigrants might get an in-state discount to attend college offers Romney a chance to play the conservative, there is no reason to believe immigration has somehow eclipsed the budget and taxes as the prime issue for the Tea Party conservatives who gave Perry his lead in the polls.
Third, Perry is not so much competing for votes with Romney as he is with Bachmann and lesser conservatives like Rick Santorum and Cain. Romney’s record as the man who passed the bill that inspired Obamacare and his various flip-flops on the issues still renders him vulnerable to a strong conservative, assuming there is one still in the running by the time the votes start counting in 2012.
That means unless and until a more credible conservative challenger to Romney comes along, Perry still has a chance, albeit a far slimmer one than he had just a couple of weeks ago. As New York Times blogger Nate Silver wrote yesterday, “in the parlance of the bond rating agencies, it is appropriate to put Mr. Perry’s campaign on a ‘negative outlook,’ but it is a little early for a full downgrade.”