WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a rocky two months, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has brought in new advisers and is trying to limit distractions that have slowed his bid to emerge as Mitt Romney’s conservative alternative.
The Texas governor, who filed paperwork as an official candidate in New Hampshire on Friday, is taking a more aggressive tone with Romney, his chief nemesis, with a flurry of attacks on Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts.
Perry this week added several new advisers with national campaign experience, such as Joe Allbaugh, who was a top aide to Republican President George W. Bush, as well as long-time strategists Tony Fabrizio and Nelson Warfield.
Until now, Perry’s campaign has been run largely by a close-knit Texan contingent.
Perry’s chief challenge is to maintain more discipline in honing his pro-jobs campaign message and limit his mistakes. A smooth roll-out of energy and flat tax proposals in recent weeks was a sign of a tighter organization.
This comes after several shaky debate performances and self-inflicted distractions, such as his diversion this week into the largely discredited issue of whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
“Job No. 1 is to have the Perry message ready when he gets a second look. We think it’s inevitable that voters will take a second look at Gov. Perry and when they do we want them to see him accurately,” said a senior Perry adviser.
Perry advisers believe that former pizza magnate Herman Cain has been a temporary phenomenon and that the surge of support for him will eventually run its course once voters give greater scrutiny to some of Cain’s positions, such as his 9-9-9 tax plan.
Cain’s plan would create a 9 percent national sales tax that would be added to state sales tax rates, which as a result would increase the price of every purchase Americans make.
Romney has yet to break away from the pack, gaining no more than 25 percent support in polls of Republican voters. Polls show a large section of Republicans remain undecided.
“He has to show voters he is running an effective campaign that can take on Mitt Romney,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “The barometer for that is peeling away voters from other Republican primary candidates like Herman Cain.”
Perry has been his own worst enemy. He leaped quickly into the front-runner position when he began his campaign two months ago only to see the advantage vanish but appeared unprepared in debates.
“He went through a rough introduction,” said the Perry adviser. “His campaign went from zero to 50 faster than anybody expected. A lot of the problems flowed from that.”
In Iowa, a state where social conservatives dominate the vote, Perry has to have a strong showing. And yet with little more than two months until the state holds the first U.S. nominating contest, a CNN/Time poll said Perry has 10 percent support, tied for fourth place, compared to 24 percent for Romney and 21 percent for Cain.
He is far behind Romney in New Hampshire, which holds the first primary battle, and lost the support on Friday of a state senator who promptly endorsed Romney. The senator, Norman Major, cited Perry’s dwelling on Obama’s birthplace as a reason why he was leaving the Texan.
Perry received some negative media attention for his decision to give himself the choice of opting out of some of the remaining candidate debates with his rivals.
A key challenge for Perry is to draw more conservative support, which is currently spread over several candidates, most with no chance to win the party’s 2012 presidential nomination.
“He’s got to consolidate Republican support,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak. “The question for me is, does that happen before Romney is too strong to be beaten in the primary?”