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."
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.
Two years later, voters elected Perry to the statehouse as a conservative Democrat. He campaigned around his district by flying a 1952 Super Cub propeller plane. Perry, then nicknamed a pit bull for favoring bare-bones state budgets, became a Republican in 1990. He soon narrowly upset an incumbent Democrat to become the state's commissioner of agriculture.
Getting back on track for Perry likely means focusing on his state's economic record: Texas, a state with less than 10 percent of the nation's population, created nearly 40 percent of all new American jobs since 2009. The roots of this Texas miracle are hotly debated. But Perry attributes it to his four governing tenets that he often repeats on the campaign trail: Don't spend all the money, keep taxes low, make government regulations fair and predictable, and eliminate frivolous lawsuits. "You can't spread success," Perry said, "by punishing it."
Others seem to agree: For seven years in a row Texas has been named the top state for job growth and business development in a survey of CEOs by Chief Executive magazine. The state has netted more than 1 million new jobs in Perry's decade as governor: more than those in all other states combined. In 2006, he signed the largest property tax cut in the state's history. He followed up a major tort reform law in 2003 with a "loser pays" law passed this year to curtail lawsuits. As Washington lawmakers talk about fiscal restraint, Perry acts, signing a budget in May that cut $15 billion in state spending during the next two years.
But to reemerge, Perry also will have to confront several controversies of his own creation. Most Texas conservatives remain puzzled by his circumvention of the Texas legislature during his push to mandate that all sixth-grade girls get a vaccine against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease known to cause cervical cancer. The legislature passed a veto-proof bill to overturn the order, and Perry later admitted he erred in his approach. A former Perry chief of staff had become a lobbyist for the drug company Merck, which made the vaccine.
"Sometimes he listens to voices and doesn't listen to enough of them in opposition before making a decision," said Cathie Adams, a former Texas GOP chairwoman. "People he has trusted may have had more influence than they ought to have."
Perry's endorsement of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 2008 Republican presidential primary, and Perry's comment that it was fine for New York to legalize same-sex marriage because it is a states' rights issue also worry social conservatives.
But it is on immigration policy that Perry has the most ground to make up with conservatives: He diverged from his party when he released a statement in opposition to the tough new immigration law in Arizona. The 2008 GOP platform specifically condemned immigration laws like the one signed by Perry in 2001 giving in-state tuition rates and financial aid to children of illegal immigrants. This is what got the boo birds out during September's Florida debate.
"He is a little bull-headed," said Kelly Shackelford, president of Texas-based Liberty Institute. "But he has the most conservative record of what has actually passed than I think anybody we've had running at this level in many, many decades."
One area where this is undeniable is abortion. As lieutenant governor in 1999, Perry helped shepherd Texas' parental notification act. Abortions performed on Texas minors have dropped 32 percent since this law and a 2005 update have been in effect. Perry also signed a prenatal protection act in 2003 that expands the definition of human life to protect unborn children from violent crimes. He has signed laws prohibiting abortions in the third trimester, requiring abortionists to present women informational brochures about abortion and other alternatives, and requires doctors to show a woman considering an abortion an ultrasound of her unborn child 24 hours before the procedure.
"He is the most successful pro-life governor we have ever had," said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life. Perry has supported budgets that devote millions of dollars to pro-life agencies such as crisis pregnancy centers. Meanwhile, he signed a budget this year revoking more than $60 million in taxpayer funding from Planned Parenthood, resulting in the planned closures of seven Texas abortion offices.
"For some candidates, pro-life is an election-year slogan to follow the prevailing political winds," said Perry at a recent speech in Washington, D.C. "To me it's about the absolute principle that every human being is entitled to life. All human life ... is made in the image of our Creator."
The roots of Perry's pro-life fervor are clear: "He doesn't just talk Christianity, he sincerely loves his Lord," said Rick Scarborough, a former Baptist pastor from Texas who now heads Vision America.
Perry is up front when it comes to his faith. In speeches since becoming governor, he has referenced Galatians, Romans, Timothy, Luke, Joel, Isaiah, and Ephesians. He has discussed the lives of Moses, David, and Paul. He has prayed with students in a public middle school and signed pro-family legislation on the campus of a Christian school. He often opens up business luncheons with prayer and regularly speaks from the pulpits of churches. He once compared holding office to a ministry: "I've just always been really stunned by how big a pulpit I was going to have," he told a group of Texas business leaders in May.
A long-standing member of Austin's Tarrytown United Methodist Church, Perry now regularly attends the contemporary evangelical Lake Hills Church. Led to the Lord at a Methodist summer camp at age 12, Perry recently told Liberty University students that soon after leaving the Air Force at age 27, he was "lost spiritually and emotionally, and I didn't know how to fix it." He would spend his nights pondering his purpose in life. "What I learned as I wrestled with God is that I didn't have to have all the answers, that they would be revealed to me in due time and that I needed to trust Him."
His outspokenness bothers some Americans: In early August, just before announcing his candidacy, Perry officially declared Aug. 6 a day of prayer and fasting and hosted a prayer service in Houston's Reliant Stadium. A national group of atheists unsuccessfully tried to stop Perry from appearing at the rally. "He's a wise, wise God, and He's wise enough to not be affiliated with any political party," Perry said before more than 30,000 who cried, sang, and shouted "Amen." "His agenda is not a political agenda, His agenda is a salvation agenda."
In his race for the GOP nomination, Perry has one of the most important elements to fuel any comeback: His campaign reported raising $17 million last quarter. That's more than any other candidate despite having less time than his rivals to raise funds this quarter. The cash ensures that, dismal debates or not, Perry won't have to leave the race anytime soon.
His long-term strategy to recover will include more paid media advertisements so that Perry's team can control the message: "Even the richest man can't buy back his past," says a new Perry video clearly aimed at Romney. A politician oftened call lucky by detractors, Perry caught another break when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decided not to run.
But money and luck won't help in the face of a puzzling media strategy: Perry did not cooperate with WORLD for this story despite numerous emails and phone calls. That continues a trend that began with the Perry campaign's refusal to do any editorial board meetings or debates during last year's governor's race, infuriating newsrooms across the state.
Since entering the presidential race, Perry has done only a handful of interviews and often ignores reporters following him on the campaign trail. A Washington Post reporter in a Sept. 21 story wrote, "We contacted Perry's spokesman for an explanation but as usual he did not respond."
"America is looking for a president who will look them right in the eye and tell them the truth," Perry said at an early October event in Iowa after his initial debate missteps. "They are interested not in what some pundit says or the joke of the day."
That seems to be what Perry is counting on.