By Debra J. Saunders
When former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman exited the GOP presidential primary earlier this month, left-leaning columnists were bereft. Huntsman, after all, was the Republican most respected by non-Republicans.
In December, New York Times number-crunching blogger Nate Silver laid out the case for “Jon Huntsman’s Path to Victory.” It turns out that path sustained itself through one state, New Hampshire, where he came in third. When he pulled out, Times columnist Frank Bruni wrote a fond farewell, in which — sometimes it’s hard to let go — he floated the possibility of a 2016 run. The Atlantic’s James Fallow also mourned the defeat of a truly swell Republican.
Expect few, if any, such dirges for Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry, you see, never seemed embarrassed to be seen with other conservatives. When Perry entered the race in August, he seemed to present the most formidable challenge to Mitt Romney. The longest-standing governor of a job-rich state who had been elected as a state legislator, agriculture commissioner and lieutenant governor, Perry had years of political experience, years of campaign vetting and years of fundraising prowess.
Unlike Romney, who went to Stanford and Harvard, the man from Paint Creek is an Air Force veteran who grew up poor and graduated from Texas A&M University. Unlike Huntsman, Perry never acted as if he were perhaps a little too precious for GOP politics. As for appealing to voters outside the GOP tent — no problem there. Perry started his political career as a Democrat.
Yet Perry’s campaign never made it out of the box. His team spent heavily in Iowa, but he came in fifth. Perry seemed to drop out of the race, only to jump back in. Then on Thursday, Perry officially withdrew and threw his support behind the undeserving Newt Gingrich.
“I think he left his campaign the way he came in, bumbling and stumbling,” quipped Democratic political consultant Roger Salazar, who couldn’t believe that Perry endorsed Gingrich on the same day ex-wife Marianne announced to the media that Gingrich had told her in 1999 that he wanted an “open marriage” or a divorce.
The GOP debates did in Perry. From his first debate in September at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Perry stumbled and sputtered.
In a late-September session in Orlando, Fla., Perry drew the wrath of tea party conservatives. Romney hit Perry for signing the 2001 Texas DREAM Act, which allows illegal immigrant students to pay reduced in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Perry shot back, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”
It was not a politic way to make his point. Perry later apologized because he had insulted the GOP base in a gratuitous manner. (In similar fashion, Huntsman implied Republicans were stupid for not following scientists on global warming. Then Huntsman kept using the same ill-considered language.) It’s too bad because Perry had a solid argument for supporting the tuition measure: It’s wrong to punish young people who work hard in school for decisions their parents made.
And it’s sad that Perry owned the better position but that Romney won that round. It’s ironic that while so many East Coast opinionators miss Huntsman, they ignore that Perry was the governor who took heat for signing an executive order mandating that middle-school girls be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted HPV.
In his bid to play to conservative caucus voters, Perry seemed to forget his main attraction — what PolitiFact described as “phenomenal job growth over most of the time Perry has been governor.” In what seemed a desperate move, his campaign tried to gin up support by flogging bygone culture wars. In a December TV spot, Perry lamented, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” It didn’t work.
Jon Fleischman, founder of the conservative website FlashReport, isn’t laughing. “There is no doubt in my mind that of all the Republicans running,” Fleischman told me, Perry “would have made the best president. He has the right mix of character, conviction, judgment, philosophy and demeanor.”
Fleischman likened Perry to former President Ronald Reagan in their shared sense of humility. “Neither the genius nor the plutocrat have humility as a strong suit,” Fleischman said of Gingrich and Romney.
Well, this is a campaign, not a coronation. The Republican who wants to take on President Obama has to perform, has to excel, has to be electable in November — and has to win states during the GOP primary.
Perry didn’t make the cut. He had won every election in which he ran from 1984 until this year, but he never won a debate.
“Oops,” you might joke. But it’s not that funny.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.