When Perry called DeMint with word -- it had already been all over the news -- Perry knew he was causing a major problem. "He just committed to spend extra time in South Carolina to make up for it," DeMint, who has never met Perry, said a short time after the call. So look for Perry to try to mend fences, and soon.
DeMint and the forum's other organizers are taking Perry at his word about the urgency of the situation in Texas. The fires are a serious and growing problem, and as governor, Perry has a responsibility to deal with them. On the other hand, some rival candidates aren't so understanding.
"It's obvious that Rick Perry is skipping the DeMint forum because he knew he was going to be asked tough questions about his previous support for gay marriage in New York, as well as his policies in Texas in favor of illegal immigration," says one representative of a rival camp. "He's looking for a reason to not actually be compared to the other candidates," says an official in another camp. "He was grasping for a reason not to show."
Had Perry shown up, he would have had his hands full dealing with Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor originally turned down DeMint's invitation and decided to appear only after seeing Perry rocket to the front of the Republican pack. But once on stage, especially when faced with a series of questions on financial regulation -- Dodd-Frank, Fannie and Freddie, the Community Reinvestment Act, Sarbanes-Oxley -- Romney delivered a masterful performance. Asking Romney about financial matters and the economy is like asking former Sen. Rick Santorum about abortion -- it's something he seems to understand deep inside himself.
And even on the issue of abortion, on which he has famously flip-flopped, Romney found a way to shine. Conservative Princeton professor Robert P. George, one of the questioners, asked each candidate about a hugely unlikely scenario in which Congress, relying on the 14th Amendment, would pass a law overturning Roe v. Wade and set up a constitutional showdown with the Supreme Court over abortion. Repeated over and over, the question had the feel of a personal cause rather than an urgent national issue. Romney's carefully phrased answer was, in effect, no thanks. "I'm not looking to create a constitutional crisis," he told George.
Could Perry have outperformed Romney? After the forum, one Perry partisan said the Texas governor could have "out-commonsensed" Romney. Perry would certainly have scored some points, and perhaps delivered a good show, but it's hard to see him beating Romney on the substance of the issues.
After the debate was over, representatives of the Perry campaign showed up at the media room to announce that South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney was endorsing Perry. It was an attempt to grab a little attention even in Perry's absence. But the fact was, Perry was in the news here in South Carolina because he wasn't here in South Carolina.
How DeMint feels about all this is hard to say. After the forum, he praised the performance of all the participants and said understanding things about Perry's absence. But each candidate knows how important DeMint's support is in South Carolina, and how important doing well in South Carolina is to winning the GOP nomination. They'd all love a good word from DeMint.
But DeMint is playing extremely hard to get. It's no secret he regrets endorsing Romney early in the 2008 Republican race. Now, he's maximizing his leverage by withholding his endorsement, probably until the last minute. "If you really want a candidate to listen," DeMint told a group of Republican activists before the forum, "make them wait a little longer."
Perry has built up a lot of support in a very short time. But Republicans still haven't seen him in a head-to-head matchup against rival candidates. That will have to wait until Wednesday night at the Republican debate at the Reagan Library in California -- if Perry shows up.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.