Rick Perry's revival plan: Debates and early states

Rick Perry

Mitt Romney may be the Republican candidate who bills himself as a turnaround artist, but it is Rick Perry who finds himself badly in need of a comeback.

After surging to the top of the polls upon entering the race in August, the onetime Republican front-runner has since nose-dived and is now all the way back in fourth place, according to the latest RCP national polling average.

In a twist of presidential campaign fate, Perry trails even Newt Gingrich, whose former chief strategists resigned en masse when the campaign was stagnating in May and since then have helmed Perry's operation.

Gingrich's mini-surge notwithstanding, Perry continues to enjoy a significant financial advantage over the former House Speaker and the rest of the Republican field with the exception of Romney.

Perry's potential for a resurgence is evidenced by the Romney campaign's tactic of honing in on the Texas governor in press releases, campaign events and debates -- while essentially ignoring the other candidates.

Romney did tell ABC's George Stephanopoulos on Tuesday that Herman Cain would have to "address seriously" allegations of sexual harassment, but the former Massachusetts governor made the comment only when prompted and has clearly preferred to steer clear of the issue while keeping his sights trained on the man his campaign sees as the biggest long-run threat.

But for Perry to turn his potential to be a strong candidate into reality, he must start by delivering a strong debate performance Wednesday night in Rochester, Mich., after a series of decidedly underwhelming showings in previous debates.

Perry is spending more time preparing for the latest forum, according to aides, as he has engaged in informal study sessions with top aides rather than participate in mock debates.

"The best preparations are the recent Iowa and New Hampshire town-hall meetings, speeches and national interviews, such as 'Fox News Sunday,' Sean Hannity and John King," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. "Additionally, the governor is spending time with policy experts and staff on his 20 percent flat tax, plans to cut the size and scope of the federal government and keeping America safe and strong."

Following Wednesday's economy-focused forum, Perry will have to change gears relatively quickly in advance of Saturday night's CBS News/National Journal foreign policy-centric debate in South Carolina -- the first of this election cycle that will air on a broadcast network.

Three more debates lie in wait before the calendar flips to December, but the Perry campaign has suggested that he might not participate in all of them, and may instead focus on showing off his retail politicking skills.

Though his campaign has emphasized that Perry will compete in all three of the earliest voting states, his immediate focus is on Iowa, where he recently re-upped his TV ad buy.

The three-term governor is slated to hit Iowa for a two-day swing early next week before returning for another day of events the following Saturday, according to an aide.

In a late-starting campaign that has been relatively light on the organizational work traditionally seen as essential to victory, the Perry camp hopes that its sustained advertising blitz, combined with behind-the-scenes legwork done over the past couple of months, will soon begin to pay off in Iowa. There, aides believe their field and volunteer organization is second only to that of Rick Santorum, who has worked the state more tirelessly than any other candidate -- but has little to show for it thus far.

South Carolina also remains an integral part of the calculus for Perry, whose team is particularly focused on the heavily Republican Upstate region.

The socially conservative base there may be inclined to give the Texas governor a second look, the thinking goes, if Cain, Santorum and Michele Bachmann do not make it to the first-in-the-South primary or are no longer viable alternatives to Romney once Primary Day olls around on Jan. 21.

The super PAC that is working on Perry's behalf, Make Us Great Again, has been running ads in South Carolina, and the campaign plans to air TV spots in the near future.

Despite Romney's dismal fourth-place finish in the 2008 South Carolina primary, the Perry campaign expects that he will continue his moderate push to win the state that has voted for the eventual GOP nominee every four years since 1980.

Romney's poll numbers have thus far been mired in the 20s in the Palmetto State, but the Perry camp privately concedes that their candidate needs to see signs of progress in the polls to make the case that he is the Romney alternative around whom conservative Republicans should rally.

Perry's South Carolina team says it is not counting on an Iowa win in order to perform well in their state, noting South Carolina's own independent streak. But good news of some kind needs to come sooner rather than later as the as the days grow shorter and voting draws nearer.

"This race will yo-yo within the next month," one Perry strategist said. "Some of this all relies on factors outside our control, but I know we're doing everything we can to affect it positively from what we can control."

This story originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.