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Rick Perry Super PAC: We’ve Planned for Pay Freeze ‘For Weeks’

Austin Barbour, a senior adviser to Rick Perry’s super PACs, said Tuesday that his groups have been planning “for several weeks” to take over some operations from Perry’s presidential campaign amidst news the former Texas governor has frozen pay for his campaign staff nationwide.

He also said that Perry’s super PAC advisers are ”still tremendously optimistic about him,” even as Perry is polling at the bottom of the GOP primary pack and failed to make it into the first major primetime debate last week.

“We saw several weeks ago when the campaign finance reports first came out that this was probably going to happen with the campaign, that they were going to have to go to a lean and mean operation that focused more on the governor’s travel, doing events in the states…and the first three debates,” Barbour told NBC News in an interview.

The news that Perry would freeze pay for his staffers nationwide, confirmed late Monday night by NBC’s Alex Moe, threw his campaign into further uncertainty and sparked speculation that the former Texas governor’s campaign may not make it through the end of the year.

Perry’s campaign reported raising only $1.14 million by the end of June, and ended the quarter with just $883,913 cash on hand. In contrast, the three super PACs backing the candidate raised $16.8 million, buoyed largely by a handful of major donors contributing, in some cases, as much as $5 million.

But a relaxed Barbour — speaking via phone from the porch of his Jacksonville, Miss. home as the mailman came in — said the super PACs could pick up the slack and would be focusing on Iowa as key to Perry’s presidential hopes.

“I think the key really is Iowa — we’ve gotta perform well in Iowa, and see what happens after that,” he said.

To deliver Perry a strong performance there, the super PACs have hired an Iowa state director and deputy state director and are in the process of hiring a field team for the Hawkeye State. Barbour described Rick Santorum’s last-minute surge there in 2012, which ultimately landed him an unexpectedly robust finish in the caucuses, as a model for what Perry is trying to achieve.

“What Santorum did in Iowa is he came on in the last four or five days…that may be where we are,” he said. “We may be one of those campaigns where it’s Christmas and New Year’s Day and you’re starting to see a surge. It could happen before then, it’s just impossible to predict.”

Barbour noted the super PAC’s efforts to pick up slack for the campaign are not unprecedented, pointing to the groups backing Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina — both of which are expected to take over key operations for the campaigns — as examples. Super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited sums of money, are barred by law from coordinating with the campaign.

Asked how he decided, without input from the campaign, that the super PACs would need to pick up their slack, Barbour acknowledged “it’s a great question.”

“It’s not like we could say, ‘Hey Jeff [Miller, Perry’s campaign manager], this is what we’re about to do — we just knew this is something we’ve got to go do,” Barbour said. “They may have a resurgence of money and they may want to go do their own ground game — there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re doing it and the campaign’s doing it as well, it’s just complimentary.”

It’s a striking reversal of fortunes for Perry, however, from his last run, where he rapidly rose to the top of the GOP field before dropping out after a series of unforced errors and gaffes that raised doubts about his campaign. At this same time last cycle, Perry was just days away from officially launching his bid and had taken an early lead in the polls, surpassing even eventual GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

But Barbour said he’s not sweating the campaign’s financial struggles and is optimistic that “things are going to break” for Perry — though it remains unclear how he’ll crack the top-ten polling position needed to land a spot in the second GOP primary debate.

“Things are going to break. It’s been a slow process, but it’s also been a very fluid process — the governor’s favorables are so high, people like him, they know about his track record, they’re going to see him do really well [in the debates],” he said.

“After a couple of breakout performances, he’ll be right at the top.”