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Rick Perry's Texas Media Strategy Falls Flat On National Stage

First Posted: 10/06/2011 12:47 pm Updated: 12/06/2011 4:12 am

WASHINGTON -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his top aides entered the Republican presidential primary with a set of beliefs about how changes in the electorate and in media have radically altered how a politician can communicate and shape a campaign.

Reality bites.

The Perry campaign's outlook in its first days was that Americans' concerns about the economy would make jobs the only issue that mattered and would render ineffective the type of attacks on non-economic issues used to sideline Republicans in the past. Perry's approach to the media would be similar to that of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin: Go around the traditional mainstream outlets, marginalizing them as much as possible.

It was to be a nationalization of Perry's strategy from his Texas campaigns, in which he shunned the press. Yet, nearly two months in, this strategy has not paid the dividends that the Perry campaign likely expected.

Instead of running on the "Texas miracle" -- an economic narrative disputed by some but supported by an undisputable job explosion in the Lone Star State -- Perry has been beset by a series of distractions from his core message. Many voters know Perry not as the job-creating, bureaucracy-destroying Reaganesque figure he would like to be, but rather as a crony-loving governor and bumbling debater who is soft on preventing illegal immigration and thinks those who disagree with him on the issue are heartless.

One leader of a national Tea Party-affiliated group, who has been supportive of Perry but in an interview gave hints of coming to terms with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee, said Perry's campaign has "underestimated their ability to keep the media and themselves on their message."

The last four national polls rating the Republican candidates have shown Perry plummeting about 10 percentage points, out of the mid-20s and into the teens. A conservative activist who has been in the room with top Perry strategists as they talked about imitating Palin's use of social media and conservative blogs to circumvent the press was blunt in assessing the results of the Perry campaign's efforts so far: "Not good."

Wednesday brought badly needed good news. Perry announced that he had raised $17 million in just 49 of the third quarter's 92 days, an impressive number that could stop his downward spiral in the polls and give him some momentum.

"I'm encouraged by that," Henry Barbour, a Republican National Committee man from Mississippi who is a bundler for Perry, said of the fundraising haul in an interview. "We needed to post a good number to start regaining momentum."

Now that the rush to push up the third-quarter money number is over, some political professionals said Perry should devote more of his attention to retail politics. He spent last weekend doing a series of town hall meetings in New Hampshire and will campaign in Iowa on Friday and Saturday.

"What he did in New Hampshire is the tonic to move people off the whole debate dynamic, which is basically standing in a room in front of 100 Granite State citizens three times a day and take the best of what they got, and you show them what you're made of. It's as simple as that," said Richard Killion, a New Hampshire Republican consultant. "It will provide, by and large, the storyline that he wants to drive."

Perry spokesman Mark Miner told HuffPost that Perry is already "spending six days a week now on the campaign trail," but clarified that he was including fundraisers that are closed to the press in his definition of campaigning. Although fundraisers provide the cash to keep Perry viable over the long haul, it's up-close exposure to undecided voters in early primary states that's a potential path back to front-runner status for the charismatic pol.

And, in fact, Bob Haus, a longtime Iowa operative who is co-chairing Perry's campaign in the Hawkeye State, said the candidate "will spend an increasing amount of time up there" in the northwest corner of the state, where Perry will be on Saturday.

STUMBLES ON STAGE AND OFF

So far, the story of Perry's campaign has been driven largely by Perry's performance in three debates. Things went from bad to worse to terrible, leading to questions about whether Perry was preparing for the events. His wife, Anita Perry, said last week that her husband would be "better prepared" for the next debate, an Oct. 11 roundtable discussion in New Hampshire moderated by PBS's Charlie Rose. A Republican operative with close ties to Perry joked that, instead of prepping for the first three debates, the candidate was "probably on the Internet looking at silencers for his 12-gauge." The Perry campaign did not respond to a question about preparation.

A senior Romney adviser, who declined to be identified, said that while every candidate makes mistakes in debates, "the problem [Perry] suffers is he comes across like he doesn't belong on the stage."

Even Perry supporters like Barbour are open-eyed about what transpired.

"Does he have to do better in debates? Sure. Does he have to be the debate champion? No. He's just got to come across as having command of the issues, which he didn't do on a couple of answers in the last debate," Barbour said.

But the Perry campaign has displayed a consistent and stubborn resistance to admitting when events have not gone their way. Apologizing or admitting error is a sign of weakness to the Texans. In a June 18 speech, Perry -- who was not then a candidate -- ticked off a list of root causes driving the nation's decline: "Too much spending, too much interfering and too much apologizing."

In that vein, the campaign's communications director, Ray Sullivan, refused to acknowledge or respond to attacks by Romney's campaign after the first debate on the issue of Social Security, leaving open for a few days the question of whether Perry wanted to end the program. Perry's top adviser, Dave Carney, denied 36 hours after the most recent debate in Orlando, Fla., that Perry was in any way struggling.

"I don't even know what you're talking about," Carney said before walking off.

But Perry lost a straw poll in Orlando badly later the same day, and it was clear that he was in trouble. It still took him nearly a week to walk back his most damaging comment from the Sept. 22 debate, when he said that those who opposed letting the children of undocumented immigrants pay in-state college tuition rates "don't have a heart." Perry, in a highly unusual show of contrition, said in a Sept. 28 interview with Newsmax that his comment was "inappropriate."

Other than his sit-down with Newsmax, Perry has done little to communicate through the press. He formally announced his candidacy on Aug. 13 before the conservative faithful at an annual gathering organized by RedState.com in South Carolina, a signal that he was interested in courting conservative media. But first, Perry had spoken to Time's Mark Halperin in an interview that shook up the chattering class a couple of days earlier and surely convinced editors and television executives around the country to send reporters down to South Carolina.

Since the rollout, however, Perry has done only two other interviews with national, nonpartisan publications. Last month, he sat down once again with Halperin -- alongside Time managing editor Rick Stengel -- and did a phone interview with USA Today's Susan Page.

Perry has also proven media-shy when it comes to the major television networks. So far, he's skipped the Sunday morning chat shows -- a mainstay in presidential politics -- in favor of talking with Sean Hannity, a Fox News host sympathetic to conservatives, and with Carl Cameron, Fox's veteran campaign reporter. Perry did one interview with CNBC, but has avoided the major cable networks MSNBC and CNN.

Reporters told The Huffington Post that the campaign is often unresponsive to their questions. Some said they've had trouble even getting on the Perry campaign's press lists. Reporters following Perry on the trail have been rankled by the campaign's unwillingness to release its schedule far enough in advance to allow them to reach events. Since Carney has found local press to be more favorable in its coverage, that might be the intent.

Access to Perry on the campaign trail has also been cut back dramatically. Perry talked freely with reporters while meeting voters during his first weekend as a presidential candidate, but during those exchanges made a number of questionable comments that drew attention and moved him off his focus on job creation and the economy. He has since avoided such open conversation with the press. The Perry campaign hasn't held a media availability with reporters since Sept. 21, and things got a bit tense last Saturday when one reporter tried asking the candidate a question.

Nearly two dozen reporters followed Perry as he pressed the flesh at last weekend's Manchester (N.H.) Chili Fest without stopping at any point to field questions. When Politico's Jonathan Martin asked Perry a question as he stepped into his car to head to a local house party, a security guard put his arm out and blocked Martin, according to a reporter present. "Is this the Bachmann campaign or the Perry campaign?" Martin asked, referring to the heavy-handed tactics employed by Rep. Michele Bachmann’s security detail on the campaign trail.

When contacted about what happened, Martin replied in an email: "I'll defer to other reporters who've spent more time with Gov. Perry on the campaign trail."

Not surprisingly, reporters covering Perry -- or any other presidential candidate -- keep their grumbling about access and responsiveness mostly private. But at times, the frustration has bubbled into public view.

On Sept. 21, the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler had no luck reaching the campaign before writing about Perry's comments on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "We contacted Perry's spokesman for an explanation but as usual he did not respond," Kessler noted in his "Fact Checker" column.

Kessler told The Huffington Post shortly after the piece ran that the Perry campaign last responded -- to a climate change article -- in August. Since then, he said, "it has been complete radio silence, even though I dutifully send emails asking for a response to my questions."

When asked about Kessler's point on lack of responsiveness -- among similar complaints from reporters a few weeks back -- Miner, the Perry spokesman, said that he'd given his "cell number and email to just about every reporter who has contacted the campaign" and that his team "will continue working to address all questions from respected news organizations." (He didn't clarify what determines whether a news organization is "respected.")

ANTIPATHY TOWARD THE MEDIA

Part of the campaign's unresponsiveness has to be chalked up to being overwhelmed. They jumped into a political hurricane with little time to prepare.

But there is also an antipathy toward the media that seems to come from an anti-elite, aggrieved sentiment that funnels down from Perry and his long-time top adviser, Carney. Additionally, they have drawn their own conclusions about the upheaval in communications and the press, and how that has reordered the media ecology.

"The world is really changing, I mean, the way people get their information, who they listen to," Perry said in 2010.

Powerful politicians all the way up to President Barack Obama have noted the same changes in media, and the Obama White House has sought since it took power to seize the advantage and go around the press as often as possible. But Perry, at least at the beginning, has set what could be a new bar for engaging with the media on his own terms.

During an hourlong conversation with HuffPost in August, Carney's contempt for much of the media was on full display as he spoke about how 2012 would be unlike past elections. Criticisms unrelated to the economy, jobs and the national debt would fall flat, he predicted. Attacks from a liberal point of view that may have gained traction in the past would be a nonfactor, he added.

"In a micro-election, all those attacks may or may not work," Carney said. But 2012, he said, will be a "macro-election."

Yet Perry was knocked off course again this week by an explosive story last weekend in the Washington Post about the racially charged name of the Texas ranch where his family hunts.

Carney's methodical and empirical study of campaign tactics was extolled this summer in an ebook by journalist Sasha Issenberg, which unpacked how the combative and sometimes surly political professional had come to view with suspicion many traditional practices in campaigning. In particular, Issenberg explained, Carney stopped putting Perry through the paces of multiple TV interviews a day and placed a priority on having him campaign personally in all of the Lone Star State's 20 major media markets.

"You always think technology can make the difference. In a state as big as Texas, you can sit in a studio and do twelve interviews on the nightly news in six markets in the time it takes you to go out to Lubbock," Carney told Issenberg. "The actual visits make a bigger, more lasting impact than just being on the news. It makes you realize it's a better use of your time."

But the Perry campaign's stumbles have led more than one observer to point out that, while Texas is a big state, running for governor there is nothing like running for president.

"I think [Perry] realizes now that until you get the full vetting that a presidential candidate gets and national scrutiny, you don't really know how you're going to do," said Jamie Burnett, who was Romney's New Hampshire political director in 2008 but is unaffiliated this election.

Since Perry handily defeated his 2010 gubernatorial primary and general election challengers while boasting about having skipped editorial board meetings, his presidential campaign can be forgiven for expecting the Texas playbook to work nationally. The public's view of the press, especially among Republican primary voters, remains low, and it's unclear just how influential editorial pages are anymore in shaping opinion or convincing voters whom to choose as their candidate.

Although voters have more news options than ever before, however, the national media still has the power to amplify damaging stories and statements, keeping them percolating in the news cycle as candidates hit the debate stage.

And the presidential campaign trail is littered with one-time front-runners who tried avoiding the media for fear that increased press exposure would only cut into their lead. Such candidates typically realize the advantage of good media relations only after a major setback. Hillary Clinton, for example, gave the press little access before the 2008 Iowa caucus. She was more accessible after Obama took the state.

Perhaps it's not surprising then that there are signs the Perry campaign is adapting. There's been a thaw in the relationship between Miner and Post reporter Kessler, suggesting that the campaign is trying to engage more with the press. In a follow-up, Kessler said Wednesday that Miner had written him a note apologizing for not getting back previously and was very responsive for Kessler's Monday article on Perry's Social Security statements.

The Perry campaign also responded to "two rounds of detailed, written questions" before Kessler's Post colleague Stephanie McCrummen published the story about the name of that now-infamous hunting ranch. And at the debate in Orlando, top Perry campaign officials made the rounds in the media room before the debate and chatted casually with reporters, imitating the more press-friendly Romney aides. The 12-minute CNBC interview on Sept. 28 was also a sign that Perry knows he has to offer more policy detail in national media appearances.

But don't expect too much of a shift, Issenberg said.

"One of the things Carney detests about campaigns is when they lurch tactically and lose sight of their broader strategic plans," Issenberg told Politico's Ben Smith. "He has said to me that he sees his role as a general consultant to a campaign as similar to being 'the conductor of an orchestra,' and I think to him that means not changing the music mid-symphony just because he starts hearing a few bad notes."

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