Perry’s Personality Problem

“And it might be electrified -- I'm not walking away from that. I just don't want to offend anybody. It was a joke to the extent in the context of the views of that speech, but in terms of what we need to do, I fully intend to do so because I'm more sensitive to our citizens being hurt."

-- Herman Cain at a campaign appearance with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Ariz. walking back his apology for having called for an electrified fence on the Mexican border that would kill anyone who tried to climb it.

The political press has been writing Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential obituary for a month. And if Perry can’t stand and deliver at tonight’s GOP debate in Las Vegas, they’re finally going to be right.

Perry’s bid has been kept alive during his weak debate showings by the fact that the Republican right has mostly refused to fall in line behind presumptive nominee Mitt Romney. Conservatives have parked their votes with Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich while they watch the process play out.

But Romney is picking up a little steam. The latest poll from CNN, which is hosting tonight’s debate with daytime chat show host Anderson Cooper as moderator, shows Perry’s problem. Romney was at 18 percent in early September and is at 26 percent now.

Some of that is the result of the pool of undecided voters shrinking as voting draws near. These voters were going to eventually support the more moderate Northeastern candidate anyway. But the increase also suggests that Romney may finally be benefiting from the ongoing boom and bust cycle in the party’s base.

So it comes down to this for Rick Perry: Can he demonstrate tonight that he is a plausible Republican nominee? In last week’s little-watched Bloomberg News/Washington Post debate, Perry didn’t commit any errors but neither did he excel. Endurance will not be enough for Perry tonight. He will have to impress.

Perry will be tempted to go back after Romney, who has been relentlessly attacking Perry even as the Texas governor sinks in the polls. Romney has mostly ignored Cain on the grounds that the former executive lacks the endurance and organization to compete in early states. Instead, he has kept punching Perry.

Iowa has picked Tuesday Jan. 3, 2012 for its presidential caucuses, so now we know the Republican nominating contests will begin in 11 weeks or less (substantially less if New Hampshire decides to teach Nevada a lesson and jump into December).

But assuming frontrunner, and party establishment favorite, Romney can prevail upon Republicans in Nevada and New Hampshire -- both states he is heavily favored to win -- to settle their differences amicably, that means Super Tuesday would take place 9 weeks after that.

Watching Cain stagger through the issue of illegal immigration and serenade crowds at book signings with the score of “Man of La Mancha” this week has no doubt reinforced the Romney camp’s decision to mostly ignore the new poll leader to keep banging on second-tier Perry.

Part of that is based on the fact that only Perry has the cash and organization to challenge Romney but also because Romney wants to keep Perry swinging wildly at him and not taking care of business.

Perry swaggered into the campaign and started attacking frontrunner Romney immediately. But Perry didn’t have a Romney problem, he had a base problem. The Republican base is deeply distrustful of Romney and needs little convincing to vote against him. But while they may have rallied to Perry, he never consolidated that support.

While there is logic in the new kid in school picking a fight with the biggest kid on the playground, Perry lost the fight and looked like he might be a bit of a bully himself.

Yes, Perry is a bad debater. Yes, Perry has problems with the base on in-state-tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. Yes, Perry talks too much about Texas. But his problem is that Republicans think he is too cocky. A little swagger is good, but too much is toxic.

Republicans have a thing about humility. They won’t nominate anyone who hasn’t been humbled at least once – and sometimes multiple times.

John McCain had to not only come up short on his 2000 quest but also see his “inevitable” nomination explode after he tried to change the GOP electorate’s attitude on immigration. McCain had to start over and say he was sorry before the Republican faithful would give him his chance.

George W. Bush came closest of all to avoiding the humility gantlet, but even he had to endure an embarrassing loss in New Hampshire in 2000, which he wisely followed with a personal apology and acceptance of the blame. GOP voters saw contrition and like it.

Look back across the span of the modern Republican Party and you see no overnight successes. Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Papa Bush and Bob Dole all had to take their turns in the dunking tank before the flinty Republican electorate would give them the nomination.

Democrats, by comparison, love an overnight success – Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern, John Kennedy. They all went from being relative unknowns to nominees by sending thrills up liberal legs.

The Republican process has been accused of producing uninspiring nominees and ones battered by inter-party fisticuffs. True. But it also often ends up making for stronger candidates. Had Ronald Reagan won in 1976 would he have been ready for a Watergate-tainted general election against a fresh-faced outsider? Maybe. But there’s little doubt that by 1980, Reagan had polished his pitch and deepened his grasp of policy.

If Perry is going to revive his bid, he has to show Republicans that he got the message.

Perry has been at his best in small groups, especially when talking about his own biography and life experiences and how they shaped his views. It humanizes Perry and makes him accessible to voters who worry that he is all swagger.

Cain is volitionally uninformed about major swaths of presidential responsibility and deviates from Republican orthodoxy on multiple points, but he is humble and likable and keeps his attacks focused on the other side. Hermentum is pure personality and Perry ought to remember that.

If Perry can show that he has heard what rank and file Republicans have to say and has been chastened by it, he can turn things around. Interestingly enough, that’s still possible because the frontrunner has so far declined to eat any crow about his past positions, including his Massachusetts health law. Romney may Tweet about his love of Subway sandwiches and talk about the need to favor the middle class in tax policy, but on policy points Romney hasn’t flinched. It’s not for nothing that Romney’s campaign book was called “No Apologies.”

But Romney has kept a lock on his quarter of the GOP and stayed true to his rope-a-dope strategy, relying on establishment support, deep pockets and superb organization to leave him the last man standing.

That’s why it would suit Romney just fine if Perry takes his smaller share of TV time tonight to keep swatting at him. They might both look like blow-dried jerks when they fight that way, but Romney knows he can go the distance while Perry cannot.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as digital politics editor based in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, he authors the daily "Fox News First" political news note and hosts "Power Play," a feature video series, on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on the network, including "The Kelly File," "Special Report with Bret Baier," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace."  He also provides expert political analysis for Fox News coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.