Behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s visit to Iowa this week to campaign for local politicians is a careful effort to remake his image from the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who couldn’t remember a key message during a debate, to a more polished and prepared contender.
While he denies it is a dress rehearsal for a second presidential run, Perry is studying policy, traveling and meeting with key activists as he campaigns for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Senate candidate Matt Whitaker in the state expected to host the first presidential caucus of 2016.
Perry has the luxury, unlike Govs. Rick Snyder of Michigan, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, of not facing a reelection campaign this year. After four terms in office, he will have plenty of free time to do the things presidential candidates should do – think about why they want to run and what agenda they are offering, assemble a quality staff, seek outside advice, study up on issues they are not familiar with and figure out how to win the nomination without doing damage to the GOP’s general election prospects.
It is hard to criticize Snyder, Kasich and Walker for keeping their attention focused on their home state and their reelection. Only Kasich appears to have a comfortable lead at this point. But that does severely restrict the time these governors need to devote to presidential preparation and inevitably lowers their profile. (After a brief Walker flurry earlier in the year, the governor has lowered his national profile considerably.)
Perry is not at the top of any poll or any pundit’s 2016 front-runner list. That is a good thing for him. Attention focused elsewhere puts the spotlight and scrutiny on less well-known candidates. But does Perry even have a path to the nomination?
We start with the premise that no one is a 2016 presidential front-runner, in part because no one knows whether candidates such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) or even Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will run. Some of them won’t, thereby thinning the herd. Perry’s task is to prove himself knowledgeable and interesting, and then, like a long-shot horse, pick his way through the crowd while other competitors tire or stumble.
For Perry, this is not simply a matter of showing that he can debate and is up on facts (although both are critical). His message, I would suggest, will need something bigger and meatier than “Texas is a model” or “the federal government is rotten,” however much he and many other conservatives agree with those sentiments. The Republican Party, as we’ve seen in the recent rollout of the reform conservative agenda and in the raft of Obama administration scandals and debacles, is heading in the direction of reforming government as much as limiting it. Voters want substance on how politicians will address their concerns about education, health care and the middle-class squeeze. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and other reformers have come up with their response, and Perry will need his as well. What would entitlements, education, health care and energy production in America look like under Perry? He needs to provide an answer. With ample preparation and his new glasses (seriously, they can emphasize the difference between 2012 Perry and 2016 Perry), he can tone down the Texas swagger and project the persona of a mature executive, which he unarguably is.
Then comes the good-fortune part of the equation, although Perry can help himself, with regard to other candidates. Perry can certainly hammer the Senate candidates for their lack of accomplishment and governors for their lack of foreign policy expertise. Perhaps Bush and Ryan don’t run, Walker never blossoms and the aversion to candidates with no executive experience overwhelms Rubio. Then Perry becomes the mature conservative who isn’t too “out there” for the establishment and is still loved by the base.
Is that a lot of “ifs”? Sure. But the same is true for every other candidate. They all have to excel in their own right and then hope others fail – or put pressure on their rivals so they do fail. Perry has some advantages others don’t. He has a military background. He has run before. And he has perhaps the most impressive (certainly longest) executive record of the likely candidates. He also plainly has some disadvantages, including his own 2012 run. He is not unlike every other candidate who will run. In a field of other candidates each with pluses and minuses, any one of them could conceivably win – which is why a whole bunch of them are going to run.