Power Play

Perry’s Painful Performance Opens Door Wider For Gingrich

Perry’s Painful Performance Opens Door Wider For Gingrich


-- Texas Gov. Rick Perry at CNBC’s presidential debate after being unable to recall that his plan called for the elimination of the Department of Energy.

Poor Rick Perry.

It’s hard to imagine a more excruciating moment in public life than his 53 second brain-freeze on a big, simple point: the third federal agency his government overhaul plan would abolish. That it was Energy – his pet issue – only made it worse.

It was especially painful for Perry’s supporters because he had been giving, up to that point, his best debate performance by far. An email at that moment to Power Play from a prominent Perry backer and fundraiser said it well: “NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!”

And while Perry gamely tried to recover in the final portion of the debate, the thought of having to do it all over again in two days in what promises to be a little-watched, but still perilous Saturday debate on foreign policy has to be absolutely shattering.

Had smooth-talking Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich been the freezer, you could imagine how they might be able to turn it into a joke – make light of themselves for the next couple of days and then move on – but for Perry, whose previous debate performances have ranged from dire to barely adequate, it is an awful blow.

Perry has had tremendous success as Texas governor and is hailed by many in his home state as a wise leader, but a man caricatured by his detractors as another dumb conservative and a redneck can’t afford to provide the most jarring debate moment since Adm. James Stockdale’s questions of Oct. 13, 1992: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Perry told “FOX & Friends” this morning that he’s pressing on and won’t quit, but he has to be wondering how much longer he has to endure this agony and when he’ll be allowed to go home.

Surely Davy Crockett’s line from his 1834 Tennessee congressional bid is running through Perry’s mind: “You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas.”

Herman Cain didn’t have to talk much about the scandal he is now dragging around with him, but neither did he seem to rise to the occasion of what should have been his strong suit: a debate on the economy in Michigan hosted by CNBC. He showed some chops when talking about European sovereign debt, but “Nine-Nine-Nine” is starting to seem like a crutch.

And his line about “Princess Nancy” Pelosi may have been an applause getter when he was still giving paid speeches to conservative groups and hosting a radio show, but isn’t the kind of thing that a man facing allegations of workplace sexual harassment wants to say. Pelosi may have earned the barb with her cut-flower, jet-set lifestyle and imperial reign as speaker, but that’s not how presidents talk about opposition leaders.

Whether Cain fades fast or gradually will depend on the potency of the charges against him and the credibility of his accusers, but he is certainly fading and was definitely not in command on Wednesday.

Romney turned in an almost perfectly modulated performance. His barking and overweening responses in the previous debate, a bear baiting arranged by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, were gone and Romney was back at cruising altitude. Romney faced no attacks and therefore wasn’t tempted to get snippy with anyone.

Except for his weird calls for a trade war with China (which seem to be part of an even weirder feud with fellow moderate Mormon Jon Huntsman), Romney sounded every bit the president straight out of central casting.

But Romney was outshone by the ever-puckish Newt Gingrich, who has now perfected his running critique of the debates themselves. It’s like “Mystery Science Theater 3,000.” Gingrich points out absurdities in real time.

Maria Bartiromo offered up the perfect question for Gingrich: “You have all said that you will repeal President Obama's health care legislation. Down the line, 30 seconds, if you repeal Obamacare, what's the answer?”

That’s not really a “down the line” question. That would be like saying “Pakistan. What’s up with that? 30 seconds.” Power Play sympathizes with Bartiromo, though, because with seven candidates still auditioning for the part of “Not Mitt Romney,” it’s hard to do substance in less than two hours.

But Gingrich made her pay for being sloppy:

“To say in 30 seconds what you would do with 18 percent of the economy, life and death for the American people, a topic I've worked on since 1974, about which I wrote a book called "Saving Lives and Saving Money" in 2002, and for which I founded the Center for Health Transformation, is the perfect case of why I'm going to challenge the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas style three-hour debates with a timekeeper and no moderator, at least two of which ought to be on health care so you can have a serious discussion over a several-hour period that affects the lives of every person in this country.”


Gingrich may want to lay off on the Lincoln-Douglas stuff since it makes him sound even fustier, but the former speaker has found his gear, and just in time.

With Cain staggering, Perry stumbling and the rest of the right – Rep. Ron Paul, Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Sen. Rick Santorum – not in position to take advantage, Gingrich is in the catbird seat. Power Play predicted a “Newt Boom” after his Oct. 11 performance in the Bloomberg/Washington Post Debate, and now is the moment to see him rise.

Gingrich had his period of (self-inflicted) agony early on, while Cain and Perry are in trouble just seven weeks before voting begins. While Gingrich’s nearly 40-year career as a politician will provide his foes lots of fodder (personal and policy-wise), it will be hard to make them seem fresh.

Perry’s vacancy comes at the best moment for Gingrich. As conservatives work through the seven stages of grief surrounding Cain’s campaign, Gingrich is standing there with open arms while Perry is again defending his intellect.

Conservative Republicans are growing increasingly anxious that Romney is unstoppable, but have so far been unable to settle on a suitable alternative. The irony, of course, is that suitability is entirely dependent on their support. The only requisite to be the anti-Romney is to have the united support of the right.

As Perry’s brain vapor-locked on stage, Power Play pictured Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour throwing up their hands at the television and asking “Really?”

Either Daniels or Barbour, the conservative governors who flirted with presidential runs and then opted out for personal or political reasons, would have been in prime position to grab the Republican nomination right now with a politically hobbled Democrat in the White House.

Daniels’ family asked him to spare them the suffering of having his divorce and remarriage to wife Cheri pored over by the prurient press and Barbour was deemed too damaged by his work as a lobbyist and too much of a “fat redneck” to appeal to a national audience.

Funny for them that the three remaining contenders to topple Romney are the thrice-married Gingrich, former lobbyist Cain and the twangtastic Perry.

And Now, A Word From Charles

“Obama imagined he could sweet-talk the mullahs into giving up nukes, and that is why he said nothing in the anti-government revolution in 2009. Then he imagined he could reset relations with Russia -- give up the missile defenses, in return he gets cooperation on Iran – and he got nothing. So here he is with no weapons or programs. All he can do is have a spokesman saying ‘We urge Iran to come clean.’”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.


Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.