Perry hopes to be the Tebow of the Iowa caucus

Posted Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011  comments  Print Reprints

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Rick Perry grabbed the spotlight early in tonight's presidential debate when he declared he hopes to be the "Tim Tebow of the Iowa caucus."

The Texas governor was referring to the Denver Broncos' quarterback known for his public displays of Christianity and dramatic come-from-behind victories.

Tonight's debate on Fox News is the last debate of the year. The candidates were quick to amplify their divergent campaign themes as they sprint toward the first votes of the 2012 presidential race in just over two weeks.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney and former U. S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, battling for the lead in the Republican nomination fight, commanded the spotlight in the 13th Republican debate, but the two Texans in the race - Perry and Congressman Ron Paul - also hoped to use the forum to optimize support in the run-up to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.

Perry, a former front-runner who has since fallen behind Paul in many recent polls, sought to complete his recovery from earlier poor debate performances and recapture the momentum that initially surrounded his candidacy.

Perry has bombarded Iowa with television ads and is traversing the Hawkeye State on a 42-town bus tour, urging voters to give him a "second look" and boost him back into the lead.

By contrast, Paul was looking to build on a recent surge that has vaulted him into the upper-ranks of the Republican field, according to polls. The 76-year-old Lake Jackson Republican, waging his third presidential campaign, has built a loyal following, including many younger voters, with a libertarian-style message accenting individual freedoms and a dramatic retrenchment of government spending.

Gingrich, who has climbed from single-digits early in the race to emerge as Romney's principle challenger, had the most at stake going into the Fox News debate as Romney and other candidates sought to slow his momentum. For all of the candidates, the two-hour forum in Sioux City, Iowa, offered the last nationally televised venue to make their case to voters before the Iowa caucuses and soon-to-follow primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

New surveys in advance of the debate suggested that the Gingrich surge could be losing steam while Paul moves forward.

A Rasmussen Reports poll showed the former House speaker with the support 20 percent of likely caucus-goers, down from 32 percent in a mid-November Rasmussen survey. Romney climbed from 19 percent to 23 percent to lead the Republican field in Iowa, according to Rasmussen. Paul was third with 18 percent, followed by Perry with 10 percent.

In New Hampshire, where Romney has long been a favorite, the former governor led with 35 percent, while Paul moved into second place with 21 percent, according to a survey by the American Research Group Inc. Gingrich was third with 16 percent. Perry was sixth with 2 percent.

The debates have had what some analysts describe as unprecedented impact in shaping the fortunes of Republicans competing for the bid to face President Barack Obama in the November, 2012, general election. Since the first debate in early May, two candidates - Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty - have left the race, shrinking the Republican field to seven.

"It feels right now like the debates have affected the dynamic more this year past years," said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. "There is something distinct about the sheer volume of debates this time."

The nationally televised forums helped boost the candidacies of Gingrich and Cain, who ultimately suspended his candidacy after allegations of sexual harassment and an extra-marital affair. But they had the reverse effect on Perry, who surpassed Romney as front-runner just days after entering the race but plummeted in the polls after stumbling in several debates. His infamous "oops moment" - in which he forgot the name of one of three agencies he wanted to eliminate - was judged as one of the biggest gaffes in debate history.

"The debates have had a more direct impact on this Republican primary race than any I can remember," said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. "They've been a killer for Rick Perry. He stumbled badly a number of times and convinced a lot of people he just didn't know enough to be a candidate for President of the United States."

Perry, suggesting that some of his initial poor showings could have been the result of fatigue caused by mid-summer back surgery, turned in more solid performances in recent debates. In an interview with Fox News just hours before Thursday's debate, he signaled his intention to make a strong showing and repeated a campaign line that his actions - rather than words - will convince voters to support his candidacy.

"I'm not a talker. I'm a doer," he said. "We've got a great debater in the White House. That's not working real well for us."

Dave Montgomery, 512-476-4294

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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