The Only Culprit in Rick Perry's Collapse Is Rick Perry

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Rugged good looks and an initial burst of accolades were never going to make up for the candidate's hubris and mushmouthed performances.

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August 13, 2011: Gov. Rick Perry announces his candidacy for president. Cue media frenzy and hundreds of screaming teen girls.

January 19, 2012: Unable to make a respectable showing in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, Perry drops out and endorses Newt Gingrich. Tells supporters that he has just begun to fight.

It was all over before it started. When Rick Perry bounded onto the national stage as the consummate politician who had never lost a race, who had never known what it was like to have to fight, he was already being feted in the state and national media as the all-but-certain Republican nominee. He was being called the next Ronald Reagan -- the next best thing to being called Jesus Christ Superstar, if not a little better. But with his trademark Texas bravado and über-masculine swagger, Perry quickly became a caricature of himself. Someone who could throw out a few zingers but couldn't back them up with any sort of substance. Someone not to be taken seriously. It turned out that the problem wasn't underestimating him. It was overestimating him.

By kicking off his campaign with a much-publicized and over-the-top prayer rally, not to mention more than one day of "prayer and fasting," Perry had made a conscious choice -- and perhaps a fatal tactical error -- to align himself with evangelical conservatives, thereby placing his candidacy squarely in their hands. Perry, a self-proclaimed "prophet," talked constantly about his faith and boasted that he was "called by God" to enter the race in between citing biblical verses by heart. There's a thin line between "religious" and "sanctimonious," one that Perry managed to cross again and again. All of a sudden he found himself trailing a Mormon and two Catholics, something that Perry and his advisers clearly never anticipated.

There's nothing inherently wrong with running as an avowed Christian conservative, as long as there's no automatic assumption that those voters are sheep who will follow you to the ends of the earth. Sure, evangelicals want someone who shares their beliefs, but they also want someone who can, you know, win. It must have stung when just days ago evangelical leaders held a meeting right in Perry's own backyard and decided as a group to back Rick Santorum as the true conservative alternative.

Perry's portrayal of himself as the anti-Washington, pro-states'-rights, freedom-loving, outsider candidate worked for him at first. But running against the evil federal government -- a key component of his entire campaign platform -- is one thing. Threatening to dismantle certain beloved federal programs is quite another. In calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," Perry underestimated the wrath of senior citizens who love their Social Security more than they love their own grandchildren. If only he had stayed on message as a job creator and stuck to his red-meat lines -- Obama's a socialist! Ben Bernanke's guilty of treason! Christians are under attack! -- things might have turned out differently. It was telling that the man who promised to bring jobs to the nation introduced his long-awaited economic plan on a postcard.

At every turn Perry tried to deflect his campaign blunders with humor or by simply ignoring them. In his much-ridiculed speech from New Hampshire, he acted so goshdarn folksy that the organizer of the event felt obliged to say that the governor was not, in fact, inebriated at the time. (As far as he knows.) Perry messed up on the number and names of the Supreme Court justices. He got the legal voting age wrong. He's not too familiar with the American Revolution. He thinks Solyndra is a country. He couldn't come up with the federal agencies he wanted to get rid of. ("Oops" will be the poor man's epitaph.)

After Perry's horrifying debate performances there should be little doubt that the events actually do matter. His numerous gaffes in front of millions of viewers gave the impression that he was a lightweight and way out of his league. And these were hardly the majors. Perry was so put off by the first two that he even suggested he would start skipping them, a ploy that has worked rather well for him in Texas.

Say what you will about Perry's inexperienced and woefully misguided campaign staff, but at the end of the day it's about the candidate. And, despite his rugged good looks -- rivaling those of Magnum P.I. -- this candidate proved very hard to market to a national audience. So for now the man who called for a part-time Congress is coming back to Texas to be a part-time governor. Maybe he'll run for re-election, as unbelievable as that may seem. Maybe he'll wait things out and try another presidential bid, as inconceivable as that may seem.

One thing's for certain. Perry's political career will never be the same.

Image: Allison Joyce / Getty Images

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Eileen Smith is the editor of the satirical political blog In the Pink Texas, and a guest columnist at the Texas Observer. She lives in Austin.

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