Republican presidential candidate, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry looks on during a campaign stop at Anderson Christian School on Aug. 13, 2015, in Anderson, S.C.
Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

Key players in Perry camp jumping ship en masse


Key players in Rick Perry’s campaign are starting to see the writing on the wall spelling doom to the former Texas governor’s presidential prospects.

The Perry campaign’s New Hampshire political director Dante Vitagliano became the latest staffer to step down after he announced late Tuesday that he plans to join Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s team instead.

It seems the only news Perry’s campaign is generating these days has been a series of unflattering headlines about staffers defecting to competing campaigns. Just last week Perry’s campaign co-chair in Iowa, Karen Fesler, jumped ship to join former Sen. Rick Santorum’s team. Before that his other co-chair Sam Clovis stepped down to join Donald Trump. Perry’s team in Iowa has since been whittled down to one paid staffer, while in South Carolina, Perry staffers were kicked off of the payroll and asked to continue working for free.

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The mass departures leave the campaign hobbling forward with a bare-bones staff as Perry’s fundraising coffers run dry. All that’s left to save him now is the Super PAC supporting him, Opportunity and Freedom PAC, to fill in the gaps with the more than $17 million raised as of mid-July.

Austin Barbour, senior advisor to the Super PAC, said the group deployed a field team of a few dozen members in Iowa this week in a broad ground game, working the phones and going door-to-door, all without a key player in the canvassing – the candidate himself.

“It’s something that’s never been done before at the presidential campaign level,” Barbour said.

Super PAC operatives are allowed to raise unfettered sums of cash while shielding the identity of donors, but by law, they are not allowed to coordinate with the campaigns they support. The Perry campaign’s staffing struggles launches the role of Super PACs even further into uncharted territory as these third party groups take on more and more of the duties and resources traditionally left up to the candidate’s operation. Perry’s primary presence in key early states will now be operated almost entirely by outside groups.

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“There’s nothing in the rule book that says you can’t do it. Obviously we’re going to do everything the law allows us to do to support Gov. Perry,” Barbour said. “And Iowa is our main focus right now.”

Perry’s first two months of campaigning has been light-years away from what he saw four years ago when he rose to the top of polls almost immediately after he announced his candidacy. He came out as a three-term governor with a strong record in a major state only before stumbling in a series of unforced errors. He later backed out of the race just ahead of the South Carolina primaries.

This time around he has struggled to gain traction in early states and stand out in a crowded field of GOP candidates – a Monmouth University poll released on Monday showed Perry polling with less than 1% of support among likely Iowa Caucus-goers. He took a major hit last month for being banished to the “kiddie table” debate of second-tier candidates, and his campaign will have its work cut out to boost his national rankings for a spot on the next debate stage in two weeks.

“Gov. Perry continues to travel the country sharing his optimistic vision for the future of the country and his proven record of success, and he is continues to focus on competing in the early states,” campaign spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

Vitagliano’s departure now leaves Perry’s already bare-bones presence in New Hampshire nearly non-existent. He has instead divided his attention between Iowa and South Carolina, where operatives say he can bounce back from recent setbacks.

“It’s always a hit for a campaign when you’re struggling financially,” said Katon Dawson, campaign chair of Perry’s operations in South Carolina. “We don’t coordinate with them, but we have a super PAC that’s locked and loaded.”

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist, said while the staff departures have been “borderline disastrous” for Perry’s 2016 ambitions, the strength of his Super PAC could keep his campaign alive if he puts his full efforts into wooing voters in Iowa.

“Eight or 12 years ago, this would have been a death knell for Perry, but this is really an experiment now,” Mackowiak said. “The question now is: Is he still viable?”