WASHINGTON -- It was the most-mocked scene of the 2012 election. In the middle of a Republican primary debate, Rick Perry went blank. “The third agency of government I would do away with -- the education, the uh, the commerce and let’s see. I can’t, the third one. I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”
Perry's candidacy never recovered. He placed fifth in Iowa, sixth in New Hampshire and dropped out before the South Carolina primary. The Texas governor who had never lost a campaign turned into a punch line.
Those closest to Perry blamed his flameout on back problems that left him dependent on pain medication in order to campaign. But his campaign was riddled with other problems. Internal staff wars caused repeated shake-ups. Perry wasn’t engaging voters. He couldn't put away even the relatively weak opposition.
When Perry made his campaign announcement last time, he was viewed as the most viable candidate to undermine Mitt Romney: a conservative evangelical with experience governing. The right wing of the party embraced him.
But Perry enters 2016 far behind the rest of the field. Before he begins to worry about making another debate gaffe, he’s going to have to make sure he will even be allowed on the debate stage. Fox News has said it will limit participation in the first debate to the top 10 candidates, according to polls. The latest Fox News poll puts him at just 4 percent, in ninth place.
And the 2016 field is much more competitive than the 2012 field. Perry enjoyed the benefit of being the only sitting governor in the GOP primary by the time Iowa voters picked their nominee. Now he’s got “former” before his title and will likely have to compete with four sitting governors and four U.S. senators (as well as three other former governors).
“Never say never in politics,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor. “But Perry has to overcome a great deal to win. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. He crashed and burned in 2012 in a much weaker field. Why would the party go with a retread in 2016? He is not the crown prince, and the GOP is beyond that era anyway -- as Jeb Bush is learning.”
Perry’s announcement speech signaled that his message won’t deviate much from his last campaign. He stuck to criticizing President Barack Obama more than Hillary Clinton -- who has become the favorite target of the rest of the GOP field. He struck a populist tone, arguing the president is to blame for wage stagnation and the slow economic recovery. And he kept up his sharp criticism of foreign policy, saying that American failures had allowed ISIS to spread. He stayed away from some of the topics that plagued his campaign the last time -- like abortion and whether Obama had been born in the United States.
If nothing else, on Thursday he sounded more energized and engaged than he did on the campaign trail in 2012, even if the content of his speech was nothing new.
He even looked like a different Rick Perry. Gone were the jeans, cowboy hat and boots, replaced with a suit and dress shoes. He abandoned his contact lenses and went with wide-rim glasses that looked more Brooklyn businessman than Texas rancher.
“If that Perry had shown up in 2012, he would have been the nominee,” Sabato said. “Timing is everything in sex and politics. This cycle, there are so many other choices.”