So, what was the epiphany that Rick Perry reached back in Austin last week? After the Texas governor came in an embarrassing fifth in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday, he announced he would head back to his state's capital to reassess his prospects — campaignese for "I'm dropping out." But in a surprising turn, Perry stayed in; he must have seen some strategy that could still win him the GOP nomination. What could it be? If this morning's NBC/Facebook debate was any indication, it involves retrenching as a Tea Party-style critic of Washington ways — and stepping up his criticism of his fellow Republicans.
In the debate, he came out swinging against his own party in a way that sounded almost kind to President Obama. "As I look from here down to Rick Santorum," Perry said, "I see insiders, individuals who've been the big-spending Republicans in Washington, D.C. And let's be honest with ourselves, the fact of the matter is that Obama has thrown gasoline on the fire, but the bonfire was burning well before Obama got there. It was policies and spending from both Wall Street and from the insiders in Washington, D.C., that got us in this problem."
This may be a sensible way to court independent voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and to compete with his fellow Texan Ron Paul. But it was a far different Perry from the one I saw last week in a restaurant in Waverly, Iowa. That Perry had tough words for a surging Rick Santorum, but mostly tried to build rapport with voters by touting the Texas economy and riffing about his cowboy boots.
This morning in New Hampshire, though, he distinguished himself with his harsh words for the GOP establishment. "We need a candidate that can not only draw that stark contrast between themselves and Barack Obama, but also stand up and lead the Tea Party movement back; 2010 was about the Tea Party standing up and understanding that Republicans — big spending Republicans — had caused as much of this problem as anything, and it was [the Tea Party's] power that brought Washington, D.C., and the House to Republican control." Later on, he further amplified the point. "I hope I'm making Republicans uncomfortable right now," he said, "by talking about the spending that they've done back in the 2000s."
Still, the White House shouldn't count the new Perry as an ally just yet. In the debate, the Texas governor also said he makes "a very proud statement" that "we have president who's a socialist."