Tomorrow’s debate in New Hampshire represents Rick Perry’s best chance to start a comeback from a month that saw him fall from a double-digit lead in the polls to an also-ran. We’ll see whether some extra sleep and better preparation will result in a less disastrous performance than his previous tries.
But a number of more substantive issues are also causing Perry problems that are roadblocks to his attempt to recover the frontrunner status he lost to Mitt Romney in the last few weeks. Until Perry is able to deliver a solid punch to Romney on health care, adequately defend his stance on immigration or map out a coherent Tea Party-friendly stand on ethanol in Iowa, his hopes will continue to sink like a stone.
Romney’s Massachusetts health care bill should have been the kiss of death to his candidacy, but for months, none of his opponents have concentrated on this weak point. Perry flubbed a chance to nail him on it in the last debate just as Tim Pawlenty did back in June. Yet, while Pawlenty’s candidacy didn’t survive his collapse on the stage in New Hampshire, Perry still has a chance to hit back and did so with a tough web ad on the issue released this past weekend. It stands to reason if enough Republicans are reminded Romney’s bill was the model for Obamacare, it will cripple his candidacy. The question for Perry is whether he is able to hammer Romney in person as well as about his video.
Unfortunately for Perry, Romney has found an issue on which he can outflank the Texan on the right. Immigration has proven to be just as much of a liability for him as health care is for Romney. As Politico reported, Perry was closely questioned on his support for in-state education discounts for the children of illegal immigrants everywhere he appeared in Iowa during the weekend. While there is a strong case to be made for his position, it appeared he was incapable of making it. Most of those present seemed to be confused by his defense. Because this is an issue that is important to many of the Tea Party supporters and social conservatives who are the core of his support as well as being crucial in Iowa, his failure on this point could be fatal.
Just as crucial to his survival in the race is Perry’s stand on ethanol. Federal subsidies for the corn-based fuel supplement are a sacred cow in Iowa, even though it makes no sense for the country. Though the ethanol lobby understands it is losing the battle, the issue still provides a crucial test for candidates seeking to articulate a position against government waste. Perry has rightly opposed the ethanol subsidy in the past, but lately, he has been waffling. He might have gotten away with an attempt to evade the issue as a frontrunner. But as a candidate who is clearly trailing, for Perry, his views on ethanol actually provide a chance to prove his Tea Party bona fides and draw a strong contrast with an ethanol supporter like Romney. But if he chickens out of a confrontation with King Corn in Iowa in a futile attempt to avoid trouble, it may be one more sign his comeback may be over before it is started.