POLITICS
07/30/2015 03:16 pm ET

Rick Perry In A Harrowing Position As First Debate Nears

Will he make the cut?

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Rick Perry has had a good July, all things considered.

The former governor and Republican presidential candidate earned plaudits for delivering thoughtful speeches on financial reform and race relations, seized the opportunity to tussle with bombastic foe Donald Trump and parted ways with half of the abuse-of-power indictment hanging over him.

Yet his national polling remains stuck in the low single digits, numbers that in any other presidential election cycle could be shrugged off by a campaign as irrelevant this early in the process. This time around, they mean Perry is on the cusp of eligibility for his party's first official debate, a harrowing position for any candidate.

For Perry especially, the polling could endanger his highest-profile opportunity yet to show off what he has been telling everyone who will listen over the past several months: He is not the Rick Perry of the 2012 race. That Rick Perry, he has argued, was altogether unready for the rigors of a presidential campaign, not the least of which were the debates.

With a week to go, Perry's team is confident he won't miss the opportunity.

"Number one, we fully expect to be on the debate stage," Perry campaign manager Jeff Miller said Wednesday. "Number two, when people see the governor on the debate stage, they’re going to be incredibly impressed.”

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

On Thursday, Perry's debate berth continued to hang in the balance. Fox News, which is hosting the Aug. 6 event in Cleveland, has said it will base eligibility on whoever is in the top 10 of an average of the five most recent national polls as of 4 p.m. Tuesday. A Quinnipiac University survey released Thursday — a poll expected to be included in the network's calculations — left Perry in 11th place in The Washington Post's running estimate of which candidates would qualify.

"He is right on the bubble," Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy said of Perry. "I think he's a man who wants redemption. He's definitely done his homework to get ready for this."

If Perry does not make the cut, he will be able to participate in a forum earlier that day in Cleveland with other candidates who did not crack the top 10. Unlike some lower-tier hopefuls, Perry has declined to criticize the debate criteria (former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania) or make it a rallying point for supporters (former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina).

"You know, rules are rules," Perry said last month on MSNBC. "I know how to play by the rules."

The debate criteria has already scrambled the dynamics of the GOP contest, forcing some candidates to prioritize growing their national profile earlier than usual. A group of pro-Perry super PACs is spending $1 million on a cross-country ad campaign, hoping to boost his national standing ahead of the first debate.

"That’s one of the reasons we’re doing it, but it’s not the only reason," said Austin Barbour, a senior adviser to the super PACs. "I feel like we’re in this thing for the long run."

As for the first debate, Barbour said he views it as just one opportunity out of many for Perry to connect with voters, particularly in early-voting Iowa, over the next several months. "It's not life or death if he's not up there," Barbour added.

Perry's also looked to nudge up his national poll numbers with a steady stream of cable TV appearances, most of them on Fox News. Perry, whose campaign recently added former Fox News producer Lexi Stemple, has appeared 24 times on Fox News since he launched his campaign, fourth among his GOP rivals, according to a tally released Tuesday to Politico.

The other Texan running for president, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, appears to be a safe bet for the first debate, placing eighth in the Washington Post's analysis.

Wherever the candidates wind up next week, South Carolina GOP chairman Matt Moore said he is not jumping to conclusions about any candidate's viability.

"I don't write off any candidates who are on the stage or not at this point," said Moore, who as a state Republican Party chairman is neutral in the primary. "I do think that if Gov. Perry's on stage, he'll be vastly improved from the previous election cycle."

Moore alluded to some of the recent attention Perry has been receiving, including for a speech he gave this month that offered a frank assessment of the GOP's history with black voters. Perry delivered another meaty speech Wednesday in which he pitched a host of Wall Street reforms while linking the 2008 financial crisis to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"I expect him to shine" on the debate stage, Moore said of Perry. "He very recently has found his voice."

Perry's campaign was keeping quiet this week about how he was gearing up for the first debate, assuming he makes it. The former governor, however, has been open about his presidential preparation over the past several months, touting his participation in wonky policy briefings and frequent trips to the early-voting states.

If he qualifies for the first debate, Perry is all but guaranteed to have to contend with Trump, currently the national front-runner for the Republican nomination. The real estate mogul has relentlessly mocked Perry as weak on border security, criticism the former governor has returned with a call for Trump to leave the race over an attack on U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a speech eviscerating Trump as a "cancer on conservatism."

While there is no doubt potential for fireworks between the two — on Wednesday alone Perry challenged Trump to a pull-up contest — Miller said the former governor's team is not sweating the radioactive businessman in the run-up to the first debate. In fact, Miller added, "we look forward to it."

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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