The latest big phenomenon in the Republican presidential nominating contest is the sudden collapse of Rick Perry, who looked to be consolidating a formidable lead just a month ago. The consensus opinion is that Perry lost his way in back-to-back candidate debates where he came across as an inarticulate yahoo that Republicans could not trust to hold his own against Barack Obama--an impression deepened by the most recent controversy over the name of his family's leased hunting retreat.
If that is indeed the case, it would be highly premature to write Perry off, since there's nothing about his image that could not be cured by a strong performance in future debates and judicious use of the $17 million the Texan has raised since entering the race in August. But there is an alternative theory about Perry's decline that creates a less optimistic scenario for the governor, while raising some hard-to-answer questions about the direction of the GOP. There is abundant evidence that Perry's problem is less a matter of style than of substance, and more a matter of ideology than of electability. To put it simply, the man who announced his candidacy with a fiery right-wing speech at a gathering of the fiery right-wing RedState community is rapidly alienating his hyper-conservative base, and may have real trouble getting back his wingnut mojo.
Recent polls illustrate the problem clearly. The percentage of GOP voters supporting Perry in the ABC-WaPo survey dropped from 29 percent to 17 percent between early September and the end of the month. But look at the internals:
The falloff for Perry against other announced candidates has been particularly steep among those aligned with the tea party movement. In early September, Perry had a 3-to-1 advantage over any other candidate among those "strongly" backing the tea party, but his support has plummeted from 45 percent to 10 percent in this group.
Similarly, a new CBS poll that shows Perry dropping from 23 percent to 12 percent among all Republicans during the last two weeks has him dropping from 30 percent to 12 percent among Tea Party supporters, a 60 percent plunge. He now ranks not only behind Cain and Romney with the Tea Folk, but behind Newt Gingrich as well.
In other words, Perry's plunge has been disproportionately strong among conservatives, and according to ABC/WaPo, catastrophic among hard-core conservatives. At a time when the same survey says Republicans care more about a candidate's agreement with them on the issues than about their relative electability by a 73-20 margin, it appears unlikely that Perry's alienation of his erstwhile fans is primarily a function of his debating style or his appeal to swing voters.
It is generally understood that Perry's positioning on immigration, and specifically his continued championship of a program that offered in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, has proven problematic to conservatives (the new CBS poll showed 86 percent of Republicans disapproving of Perry's program). But the extent of the offense has been underplayed by political observers for whom it is gospel that issues other than the economy don't matter to voters this cycle. Evidence to the contrary, however, is right there in the ABC/WaPo survey. Offered a list of issue positions which might make Republican voters more or less likely to support a candidate, "supports in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants" elicited far and away the most powerful negative response, with 53 percent saying it made them "much less likely" to support the candidate promoting that heresy (the same percentage, it so happens, as those saying "wants to repeal new health care law" made them "much more likely" to support the candidate). The poll didn't ask what voters would think of a candidate who called them "heartless" for feeling that way, but presumably the numbers would be even more emphatically negative.
The really bad news for Perry is that the worst may be yet to come, once his positions and record on issues other than immigration come fully to light and are exploited by rivals. Michele Bachmann tried to turn his handling of the HPV vaccination controversy into an example of Perry's "crony capitalism," but her attacks backfired thanks to her foolish embrace of the idea that the vaccine might cause mental retardation. Other Perry initiatives in Texas, though, show more obvious vulnerabilities, particularly his fondness for using state funds to subsidize private companies--some with links to him personally and others whose executives have turned up as Perry campaign donors--in the name of economic development. This was the topic of an early Wall Street Journal op-ed blasting Perry for "crony capitalism." And you can bet rival campaigns are digging into the ground already turned by TNR's Alec MacGillis in his examination of the state's Enterprise Fund, the Emerging Technology Fund, and the OneTexas Foundation, along with private contracts awarded by the Perry administration for major public services like Medicaid. At a time when Republicans are in full cry about the Obama administration's alleged habit of picking "winners and losers" in the private sector in areas ranging from the auto industry to clean energy, there is an obvious opening for tarring Perry with similar practices.
MacGillis has suggested that Republicans don't really want to "go there" when it comes to Perry because their corporate allies won't like it. But in the heat of a competitive presidential campaign, Perry's rivals will be strongly tempted to pick up any rock they can find to hurl at him, particularly if it can be used to undermine the "constitutional conservative" credentials that bind him to the Tea Party. And anyone who thinks Perry will get a pass on all these ideological questions should note the challenge, just issued by RedState's Erick Erickson, for all the candidates to submit to an individual "conversation" based on the concerns of "conservative activists." Wildfires in Texas gave Perry an excuse to skip the last such ideological inquisition, sponsored by Jim DeMint on Labor Day. But that one lasted about twenty minutes per candidate. Erickson wants two hours. No stone will be left unturned. And unlike the occasion of Perry's announcement speech to Erickson's group in August, he won't be able to spend his time ranting and strutting and whipping the crowd up into a frenzy against Barack Obama. He'll have his own right flank to cover.
Bio: Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.