After a series of stumbles, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is looking to reboot his presidential campaign with a $17 million fundraising haul, an appearance before a like-minded audience of Christian conservatives, and a steadier performance in next week's Republican primary debate.
The latest polls show Perry losing his edge over his chief rival, Mitt Romney. Perry's announcement on Wednesday that he collected $17 million in just seven weeks—likely outraising Romney, who has not yet revealed his take for the quarter—was the first step toward regaining his footing.
The next one is his speech Friday at the Value Voters Summit, a gathering of social conservative activists in Washington that plays to Perry's strengths. Unlike Romney, a Mormon who once favored abortion rights, Perry has strong ties to the evangelical community.
Perry's has another opportunity to prove his mettle Tuesday at a debate in New Hampshire sponsored by Bloomberg and The Washington Post. The forum will offer Perry a new, potentially more relaxed format, in which he and the other candidates will be seated around a table, rather than standing behind lecterns as in previous debates.
In three back-to-back debates last month, Perry botched questions on foreign policy and his support for tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants. On Tuesday, Perry is not likely to change his positions—or his lines of attack against Romney—but he is expected to refine his answers.
"I have no doubt that he is taking this next debate very seriously and will be well-prepared," said Henry Barbour, a prominent Republican activist who encouraged Perry to enter the race in August. "It will be an opportunity for him to gain people's confidence."
Barbour added, "I'm very encouraged by the fundraising. He doesn't have to be the greatest debater, but he does have to regain the momentum to sustain that."
Perry's campaign was unwilling to divulge details of his preparations for Tuesday's debate, though a source confirmed that the governor's back pain has subsided. Perry has had back surgery and there was speculation that discomfort was a factor in his less-than-stellar earlier debate performances. After two weeks off from the debate stage, he is under pressure to show more resilience than he has in the previous two-hour debate broadcasts. First as the hot newcomer and then as the front-runner, he was the target of attacks from nearly every other opponent.
The dynamic of the race has shifted with Perry's slide in the polls and this week's announcements by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that they will not enter the race. The field is now set. A solid performance by Perry on Tuesday is pivotal to luring major donors off the sidelines by proving he can take on President Obama in the general election.
Perry's team says the polls show no reason for panic. He's forfeited some support to corporate executive Herman Cain, whose lack of political experience makes him an unlikely nominee, but voters are not flocking to Romney.
"The campaign improves every day," said Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan. "Campaigns have ups and downs, and our goal is to keep things on the upswing."
He said Perry will seek to clarify that the Texas law does not offer illegal immigrants a free ride at public universities, only a chance to pay the in-state tuition rates available to other residents. An educated population means a stronger economy, he said.
"Clarity on those points is important," Sullivan said.
Perry may also have to field questions about another sensitive topic—the racist epithet at the entrance to a hunting ranch rented by his family. Perry has said the word was painted over, and he could use that question to as an opportunity to talk about his appointments of African-Americans to prominent posts in Texas.
Tevi Troy, who served in the Bush administration and helped the president prepare for campaign debates in 2004, said Perry needs to have a better handle on the substance of his answers, and his attacks on his rivals need to be shorter and more precise.
"He needs to say his piece and then move on," Troy said. "I don't think he was prepared for the depth and level of the assaults in the last debate. I am sure his team has been working on his briefing book and watching the tapes, but I don't think a candidate can completely remake himself."