ORLANDO – How did Rick Perry get here?
Just a few weeks ago, the Texas governor was taking the Republican presidential primary by storm, but his star has fallen rapidly over the course of his first three debates. On Thursday night, it came crashing down.
Conservatives flocked to the three-day conclave here – kicked off by the Google-Fox News debate Thursday night – "ready to marry" Perry, but left "spooked" by his performance, said one Florida Republican with contacts among both campaign operatives and grassroots activists.
That discontent has been building, though it's not final in any sense. Perry's fortunes have fallen in large part because of a series of gaffes that demonstrated his lack of discipline and experience on a national stage. In several key moments during the past few weeks, the governor showed a tendency to undermine some of his best moments and to make tough or difficult moments even worse. His potential supporters have grown leery of Perry as the list of his unforced errors has grown longer.
The good moments gone bad:
Perry's answer to the HPV vaccine question on Thursday night could have been a standout moment. At first blush, some thought it was one of his best. He explained his decision to mandate vaccination for young Texas girls with a personal and moving story of meeting a woman suffering from cervical cancer, which can be caused by the human papillomavirus.
"I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage-four cervical cancer. I spent a lot of time with her," Perry said.
Perry did indeed spend time with Heather Burcham, who died in July 2007. But while the governor gave the impression that his decision to issue an executive order mandating HPV vaccination, bypassing the state legislature, was influenced by this experience, he did not meet Burcham until after he had issued the order.
On Wednesday evening, Perry saw another strong moment soured. He started off well by speaking poignantly to a roomful of a few thousand activists here about his need for their prayers.
"As a governor who's made a great deal of decisions with consequences over the years, I couldn't have done so without being driven to my knees on many occasions. As I campaign for president, I not only ask you for your vote and your support, I ask you for your prayers," Perry said.
The connection in the room was palpable, and Perry added to it for a moment by asking the crowd to pray for President Obama, taking on an air of dignity and good will.
"I ask you to pray for our country. I ask you to pray for our president," he said.
But Perry couldn't help himself. He added a request that the activists pray for Obama that God "open his eyes." Maybe some in the room didn't mind, but the implicit claim by Perry that his policy positions have divine fiat destroyed any of the moral high ground that Perry had momentarily begun to claim.
The bad moments made worse:
Perry had to have known he was going to get hammered on immigration, particularly his support for providing discounted in-state tuition at Texas public colleges and universities to children of illegal immigrants. He took flak for that in last week's debate, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney argued at length Thursday as to why the policy "makes no sense."
Perry bristled, and in his eagerness to hit back, he slighted a large swath of the conservative grassroots.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said.
Calling people who disagreed with him heartless will resonate. One conservative activist who said he agreed with Perry on the issue was still offended by the suggestion that those who disagreed with Perry lacked empathy.
Romney jumped on the line in his opening comments Friday morning during a speech to the Conservative Action Political Conference in Florida.
"I think if you're opposed to illegal immigration it doesn't mean that you don't have a heart. It means that you have a heart and a brain," Romney said to cheers.
Perry managed to commit a double error in his answer Thursday night to the HPV vaccine question. Moments after he had told the misleading story about Heather Burcham, he came back to a topic that has bedeviled him already: whether his vaccine mandate should have had an opt-out for parents or an opt-in.
"I readily admitted we should have had an opt-in, in this program," Perry said.
But that's not true. In the first two debates, Perry vigorously defended the opt-out, saying in California on Sept. 7: "I don't know what's more strong for parental rights than having that opt-out."
Perry has said at least twice outside the first two debates -- once before them, once after -- that he should have had an opt-in. The difference, of course, is that an opt-out acts much more like a mandate, requiring parental action for children not to be vaccinated. With an opt-in, only children whose parents really want the vaccination receive it.
Perry expressed some frustration with the topic, but in the process insulted parents.
"I don’t know what part of opt-out most parents don’t get," Perry said.
Though such fortune is becoming more common, Romney adviser Stuart Stevens could hardly contain his glee when talking to reporters about Perry's comment after the debate.
Stevens said Perry's position amounted to this: "If you're a parent and you don't like what he did, you're stupid."
The other gaffe by Perry that made a bad moment even worse came in the second debate on Sept. 12 in Tampa, when Rep. Michele Bachmann pointed out that Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a lobbyist for Merck, the drugmaker set to make the HPV vaccine and profit from the mandate.
Perry's response must rank among the all-time most ill-advised debate lines.
"The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them," Perry said. "I raise about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."
If he meant to imply he could only be bought for more money, Perry was successful. Given the many ways in which he has presided over a pay to play system in Texas, made questionable use of taxpayer funds and hid behind a shroud of secrecy in his dealings as governor, it was a low moment for his political prospects.
Combined with two major gaffes on foreign policy in the last debate, and a bumbling attempt Thursday night to point out Romney's past flip-flops, the overall portrait of Perry has for many changed dramatically -- from a rock-ribbed conservative warrior to that of a overconfident, underprepared and not-ready-for-prime-time opportunist.
"The truth of the matter is, you've got to stop getting into trouble," said Al Cardenas, the former Florida GOP chairman and current chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosted the CPAC conference. "He's got to get himself out of these issues."