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Photo by Chris Fitzgerald/Candidate Photos/Newscom

Lone shooting star

Campaign 2012 | Rick Perry burst into the presidential campaign with an impressive conservative record and a lot of campaign money, but the media-shy and debate-weary Texas governor has fallen behind quickly. Will he find a way to stage a comeback?

Issue: "Beyond the body count," Nov. 5, 2011

The biggest debate of Rick Perry's life began with a question to Herman Cain.

Who knows what Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, thought Oct. 11 as Cain answered moderator Charlie Rose's question, "What would you do specifically to end the paralysis in Washington?" That is a question that Perry, who got just two questions in the debate's first half hour, wished he had.

"The states are proof that the best leadership is closest to the people not holed up in Washington, D.C., issuing these one-size-fits-all mandates," Perry might have said as he did at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference earlier this year. He promised a South Carolina crowd in August when he first announced his run for the presidency that "I'll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can."

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That Charleston speech, however, is two months and several mediocre debate performances ago. Then many considered Perry the conservatives' white knight, vaulting to frontrunner status in a race lacking a slam-dunk candidate.

But doubters emerged as Perry struggled in his first three debates. He bungled verbal attacks on his opponents ("was it-was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint he was for standing up for ..." he aimed at Mitt Romney); failed to parry the pummeling opponents gave him (mostly centered on his 2007 executive order mandating that young Texas girls receive vaccinations for a sexually transmitted disease); and even managed to get booed by a conservative crowd in Florida (after suggesting those against his controversial immigration policies were heartless).

Brit Hume of Fox News said Perry "really did throw up all over himself." Even his supporters said he looked inarticulate and unprepared. He fell 10 percentage points in the polls, losing his frontrunner status and giving Cain center stage.

The placid Oct. 11 debate in New Hampshire didn't provide Perry with a much-needed signature moment-something to reassure conservative voters that he has the verbal chops to go against President Obama next fall. Afterwards, Perry visited a Dartmouth College fraternity and admitted to the students, "Debates are not my strong suit."

An Oct. 18 debate in Nevada did only a little to change that: Not waiting for a question, Perry called himself "an authentic conservative, not a conservative of convenience" and took the first of many swipes at Romney, suggesting he won't quit the national stage without a fight. Perry hasn't lived up to the high expectations that greeted his entry into the race, but it would be foolish to count him out.

He has never lost an election, dating back to an elementary school contest for carnival king. He may have been dubbed the accidental governor when he assumed the state's top spot after George W. Bush became president in 2000, but Perry has since won three reelection bids, part of 10 straight contested election victories. In 2002, Democrats spent $50 million trying to beat Perry in his first gubernatorial election. He won by 18 percentage points.

He has gone from frontrunner to underdog in two short months. But there may be a comeback within Perry.

His simple roots seem better fitted for the role of longshot: The son of tenant farmers from a dry, dusty west Texas community called Paint Creek, Perry grew up 16 miles from the nearest post office. He lived off a gravel road. Surrounded by miles of pasture, Perry had few playmates besides a dog and a Shetland pony. A school with just 110 students from grades 1 through 12, a Methodist church, and Boy Scouts dominated his life. His mom hand-sewed his clothes until Perry went off to college.

"I didn't know that we weren't wealthy in a material sense," Perry, 61, said during a recent speech at Liberty University. "I knew that we were rich in a lot of things that really mattered in a spiritual way."

At Texas A&M University, Perry honed his political skills as an elected yell leader for sporting events. He also earned a reputation as a prankster: putting live chickens inside one student's dorm room over Christmas break and hiding firecrackers with waterproof detonators inside toilets.

Perry wanted to be a veterinarian, but "four semesters of organic chemistry made a pilot out of me." After graduating in 1972, Perry spent more than four years flying C-130 cargo aircraft for the Air Force. His missions to Europe and the Middle East allowed him to see the world beyond Texas.

Perry met his wife, Anita, at a piano recital when he was 8 years old. Today, he calls her a Proverbs 31 wife. They married in 1982.

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