LAS VEGAS – The last time I saw Rick Perry speak in person, to the Faith & Family Freedom Coalition’s cattle call in Orlando, the governor looked and talked like he’d just had a chunk taken out of him by a lurching zombie. It was only a few hours before he’d take the stage for the Presidency 5 debate – you know, the one where botched his attack lines like a country drunk trying to hit on the mayor’s daughter before closing time.
Perry was in far better form at the Western Republican Leadership Conference. He literally ran onstage, and never let his energy flag. When he flubbed a line, he caught himself. “We want to scrape – well, scrap, but maybe we’ll scrape it, too!” EPA regulations. He held his left hand to the side, gesticulating as he gripped a microphone with his right hand. Message: I’m the scrappy, ass-kicking underdog.
“The pundits and the establishment may think it’s their job to pick our next president,” said Perry. “Primary voters and caucus voters haven’t gotten that message!” A smallish crowd liked that answer; there’s some residual bitterness about the idea that media moderators are wasting everyone’s time with combative questions, pitting candidates against each other.
“No longer is a policy going to be dictated by K Street,” said Perry. “It’s going to come from main street!” Hey, it might even come from him. In six days, he promised the second part of an economic plan that would tackle regulation and taxes. “We need a flat tax. I want to make the tax code so simple that even Timothy Geithner can file his taxes on time!” He kept on moving. “I will barnstorm this country for a balanced budget amendment!” This was the Perry of two months ago, fired-up enough so that you could actually imagine him doing it.
He would do it by being tough and unspecific. I heard lines that would not survive debates – stronger than what he led himself into in Fed Up!, but fairly glib. “I’ll deliver a huge, big ol’ helpin’ of unbridled truth,” he said, “that we can’t continue to spend what we’re spending, that we can’t avoid entitlement reform because we’re afraid of the third rail of politics.” It’ll work, he said, because… well, basically because he’s not Romney. “You won’t hear a lot of shape-shifting.” He left the stage as if he’d been spring-loaded. “Let’s do it! Let’s roll!”