Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 | 2 a.m.
The Rick Perry relaunch has finally arrived.
After weeks battling questions about how he plans to salvage his listing presidential bid, the Texas governor has finally started spelling out an answer. It involves opening his $15 million campaign war chest, hitting Mitt Romney harder and moving to reclaim the role of the populist conservative outsider in the race.
Perry delivered a policy address Tuesday in South Carolina outlining his support for a national flat tax — a proposal that for the first time extends beyond his record in Texas. His campaign reserved statewide television airtime in Iowa to start as early as this week.
Perhaps most important, Perry has brought on board a new group of media consultants known for their brass-knuckled tactics and sharp read on the GOP base. Joe Allbaugh, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, added major national heft to the Perry team by signing on as a senior adviser.
It all adds up to a course correction that may give Perry his best shot at getting back into contention with Romney, the sometime GOP front-runner whom Perry attacked forcefully in last week’s Nevada GOP debate.
Expect plenty more where that came from, say strategists familiar with Perry’s growing team.
“The Perry folks are undergoing a reboot of sorts after last week’s debate, where they are moving to make this a two-man race,” said conservative strategist Keith Appell, who worked on Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign with brand-new Perry advisers Tony Fabrizio, Curt Anderson and Nelson Warfield.
Appell predicted the fresh blood would help the Texan wage a more focused and aggressive campaign.
“They are all kindred spirits with the Perry people in that they are all Washington outsiders who aren’t afraid to take on the establishment,” Appell said. “It will soon be Mitt Romney’s turn to feel like a piñata.”
At a minimum, the hires soothe donors who have grown worried about investing in a troubled campaign. At most, they signal a major change-up.
Fabrizio, Anderson and Warfield are all veterans of the Bob Dole 1996 campaign with Perry top strategist Dave Carney — who is no stranger to hardball tactics himself — meaning they’re not just getting to know each other now. And Allbaugh is a veteran name that the GOP donor community is familiar with.
Perry staffers have played down suggestions that adding team members represents an internal shift for the campaign, and press secretary Mark Miner said only that Perry was “putting the resources and team in place to run an effective and credible campaign.”
But Perry’s new consultants are a roster of some of the most nationally seasoned and toughest names in the Republican media world. The Scott campaign was among the most searingly negative — and effective — message machines of the 2010 cycle, tearing through two well-liked statewide officeholders with a barrage of self-funded attack ads.
Anderson was also a key adviser to the upstart, Tea-Party-infused campaign of Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who successfully defined incumbent Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold — a three-term incumbent with a strong independent streak — as a liberal relic who was part of the problem in Washington.
The advisers are well acquainted with the populist, anger-driven sentiment among the GOP base that helped fuel the Tea Party movement and helped their most recent candidates win. While Romney’s team is known for its stealthy, cutthroat skills, the Perry hires have been far more frontal in their attacks.
As one source familiar with the media and polling hands said: “Mitt Romney is about to discover what it’s like to bring a knife to a gunfight.”
Perry has already started to spell out a contrast between himself and Romney, telling a crowd in Nevada last week that he is “not the candidate of the establishment. You won’t hear a lot of shape-shifting nuance from me.” He spent time with Warfield and Anderson in the run-up to the debate, and they helped shape the new message.
He repeated the “shape-shifting nuance” line in Iowa over the weekend. While he didn’t mention Romney by name, the implication couldn’t be clearer — or more consistent with the way Perry’s array of advisers likes to campaign.
In the Florida governor’s race, recalled former Democratic Governors Association Executive Director Nathan Daschle, Perry’s new consultants “took a subpar candidate and pulled off two upset victories against much more seasoned and established politicians.”
“They dominated the message war against (Republican primary opponent) Bill McCollum, which is tricky in a politically sedate state like Florida,” Daschle said. “Two months out, I would have bet my house that we would have won that governor’s race. My family is really glad that betting (on the outcomes of political races) is illegal in this country.”
Susie Wiles, the former Jon Huntsman campaign manager who was a top aide to Scott, said her former colleagues — especially Fabrizio — could bring national-caliber focus to Perry’s operation and give him a boost in the key primary state of Florida.
“They’re disciplined. They’re capable of doing what’s necessary for their principal,” said the Jacksonville-based Wiles. “I think it bodes very, very well for Rick Perry in this next stretch, whatever this turns out to be … The discipline that Tony brings to any organization and any candidate is worth its weight in gold and probably immeasurable.”
It remains to be seen exactly how Perry’s new team will function. Perry aides insisted Monday that the additional advisers weren’t displacing any current members of the team. That means that what had been a relatively small, Texas-centric operation will suddenly have a whole new layer of senior leadership — and a whole new layer of logistical challenges to deal with.
What’s more, no added staff or new strategy can effectively neutralize what has been the Texas governor’s greatest weakness: his own floundering performance in debates and on the campaign trail.
Perry also has a painfully small period of time to turn around his bid before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. In little more than two months, Perry must rebuild his battered image, crowd out a field of other conservative hopefuls and take Romney down a notch or two before actual primary voting starts.
Republican media strategist Alex Castellanos suggested that Perry is likely to focus his attention on the last of those imperatives: tearing down his most formidable opponent in the race instead of “repairing Perry’s broken image.”
“My guess is they believe that if they can kill Romney, no one else can get the nomination but Perry,” Castellanos said. “I expect that a few Perry positives will soon hit the TV airwaves, but they will just be cover for a brutal assault on Romney from the Perry campaign and his super PAC.”
He warned: “Perry won’t just go negative. He’ll make your television bleed and beg for mercy.”
One Republican operative familiar with the work of Perry’s new team expressed concern that the coming campaign could be so negative as to “jeopardize the general election.”
“They want to destroy Romney, and they don’t care if there is no GOP elephant left,” the operative said. “Total destroy mission. And Perry’s bought into it.”
Another Republican braced for a savage assault on Romney that could weaken the GOP for the fight against President Barack Obama: “If there’s no party left, there’s no party left, and that’s what Axelrod and Obama’s guys are hoping for.”
Even among Republicans less inclined to fret about the general election, there’s a healthy degree of skepticism about whether Perry is really capable of making a national political comeback after one of the worst political months in recent presidential campaign history.
An AP-GfK poll released last week found that Perry’s favorability ratings were now in decisively negative territory: Forty-four percent of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of him, including 24 percent who had a very unfavorable impression. Only 38 percent had a favorable impression of Perry, including a minuscule 9 percent who had a very favorable view.
That leaves Perry with a very steep hill to climb if he’s going to make himself acceptable again to Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the American electorate.
At the moment, Herman Cain is occupying much of the populist space that Perry — and Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump before him — occupied before losing steam. But the assumption among Perry supporters is that Cain’s numbers will come back to earth the more scrutiny he faces — and that voters, if given a reason, may return to the Texas governor.
Still, rolling out a few policy ideas — the flat tax and personal retirement accounts for Social Security among them — and attempting to discredit Romney may not be the answer to what ails Perry’s White House bid.
“Republicans love the flat tax, and I think it adds to Perry’s narrative,” said former John McCain adviser Mike Dennehy. “But for him to rebrand himself, he’ll need to be hitting it 24/7 with paid advertising so that the political buzz moves off of Cain’s 9-9-9 and onto Perry’s flat tax proposal.”
Still, given where Perry’s campaign currently stands in the race, Dennehy said: “It can only help!”