Rick Perry supporters say he and his campaign's top officials failed to rally evangelicals sufficiently to make him the viable alternative to Mitt Romney in what some conservatives say is rapidly turning into a disappointing non-contest for the presidential nomination.
Other conservatives have noted that while the Texas governor hasn't helped himself with his performance in recent debates, the Perry campaign team also has done a poor job on such matters as using surrogates and exploiting Mr. Romney's vulnerabilities.
"Perry hasn't reached out to surrogates sufficiently to get them to help him with his errors," said Randy Brinson, a leader of the Christian Coalition in Alabama.
The paucity of Perry supporters on the campaign stump goes beyond the religious community.
"He has too few surrogates and not just among evangelicals. Where's [Louisiana Gov. Bobby] Jindal? He endorsed Perry strong and early," said Dave Battaglia, an evangelical Christian and Indiana/Armstrong Tea Party Patriots executive committee member.
Nor has Mr. Perry, campaigning and performance problems aside, been able to close the deal with many evangelicals and conservative Catholics when it comes to matching beliefs with actions.
"He hasn't made the case that he is committed to tying evangelical beliefs to public policy," Mr. Brinson said. "George W. Bush did that in 2000, and he didn't have to go on the defensive with evangelicals as Perry has had to do."
The Texas governor entered the race with a splash and quickly became the Republican front-runner, especially boosted by his state's job-creation record. But his standing in polls — both nationally and in key early states — has slipped dramatically in the past few weeks, especially since businessman Herman Cain began to surge into the top tier.
Some Perry supporters say he still has a chance to perform better in debates, but that alone won't be enough to return him to the top tier of candidates and to make him the conservative alternative to the front-running Mr. Romney, whom conservatives view with suspicion.
"After his debate performances, I am still hearing from most social-conservative leaders that they still want Perry to win and perform well because they think he is the only one with a real chance to beat Romney," said Kelly Shackelford, president of Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas. "They are just waiting to see if he can get his legs back under him. If so, he could scoop up almost all the social-conservatives nationwide."
Mr. Shackelford was among 200 evangelical leaders who gathered on a private ranch west of Austin, Texas, to meet with Mr. Perry in August and said that while the governor impressed him, his campaigning since has not.
"People want a real Ronald Reagan social and fiscal conservative candidate," he said. "Perry totally fits that. He just has to also perform well as a candidate."
Mr. Brinson agreed, adding: "Perry did nothing with that group in Austin. Didn't give them marching orders. He had the whole religious right in his back pocket and didn't pull them together into his constituency, the way George W. Bush did."
Several people who attended the Austin meeting said the Perry staff let some of the evangelical leaders turn the session into what Mr. Brinson called "an inquisition," challenging Mr. Perry to explain some of his actions as governor.
"Evangelicals are split because some of the so-called 'leaders' think that the candidates need to pay homage to them, and that is ridiculous," Mr. Brinson said. "He needed then — and needs even more now — to make certain key evangelicals are integral parts of his team, and have access to media, in order to deflect criticism, when it arises."
Perry strategist David Carney said the campaign was doing well with evangelicals and leveraging their leaders' endorsements, noting that John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council wrote in an opinion column Thursday that Mr. Perry is not only a true conservative on social, economic and defense issues, but the "most electable" of the Republican candidates against President Obama.
"We work every day building our winning coalition in states around the country, and we have been supported and endorsed by faith leaders across the board," Mr. Carney told The Washington Times on Thursday.
The resurrection of the Perry campaign is considered crucial among many of these hard-core conservatives and among some pragmatic Republicans who aren't sure Mr. Romney can win the presidency. They note that evangelical Christians didn't turn out in the needed numbers in 2008 because they had doubts about Sen. John McCain.
Mr. Battaglia, on the other hand, is one of the few evangelicals to declare the race over for Mr. Perry. He said the Texas governor "is extremely unlikely to regain the No. 2 spot in the polls, let alone be the front-runner."
The absence of a chorus of evangelical defenders, according to Mr. Shackelford, has allowed to take root attacks from other candidates on such issues as in-state college-tuition rates for illegal immigrants and a controversial child-vaccination proposal.
"All people know about Perry is the immigration-tuition and the HPV-inoculation issues," said Mr. Shackelford, who said he recently appeared on a conservative radio talk show in Iowa and rattled off "the 100 good things Perry has done as governor, compared to the three or four things conservatives question. And the talk-show host said to me, 'Why haven't heard that before about Perry?' "
Some Perry supporters identified strategist Mr. Carney as one of several top aides who have yet to get the hang of transferring to the national stage a successful state campaigner like Mr. Perry.
"I don't think it is totally the campaign's fault," Mr. Brinson said. "But I do think it is the fact the campaign is having difficulty deciphering who is an evangelical that has a significant following that can bring evangelicals to the polls and not scare off independents and other voters."
One religious-right leader said on the condition of anonymity that "I hear no trumpet sounds from evangelical leaders calling the faithful to battle in defense of Perry."
Evangelical Perry supporters said one thing that could be done to unseat Mr. Romney from his front-runner spot is to have surrogates plant doubt among Republican primary voters about the former Massachusetts governor's Mormonism, something that is widely thought to have contributed to his poor showing in the 2008 Republican primaries and caucuses.
"This is not a difficult task, but one that must be done," Mr. Brinson said. "You can't have people raising the Mormon issue front and center, but you can raise the question as surrogates about the language of faith that we used successfully against Romney in 2008 when we worked for Mike Huckabee. It is all about semantics."
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