For the media, the 2016 presidential race boils down to a contest between Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for the far right’s affections. And certainly those two candidates are seeing the race in such terms. But the candidates, the media and the GOP at large make a mistake if they ignore Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Yes, Rick Perry.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

If ambition determined the presidential nominee, Paul and Cruz would have little competition. But the times are much less conducive to their candidacies. The tea party has peaked and appears now influential only in deep-red jurisdictions. President Obama’s foreign policy incompetence, poor judgment and penchant for retrenchment leave Paul looking like the Obama-but-worse candidate, while Cruz’s leadership in the shutdown still defines — and rules out — his candidacy for too many Republicans. But if the base is looking for a very conservative candidate who can turn on a crowd and vouch for the benefits of conservative governance, Perry increasingly seems like the rational choice. Despite his disastrous run in 2012, he is getting strong reviews these days. We saw that in spades in the coverage of the Texas GOP convention this week.

The Dallas Morning News noted: “Gov. Rick Perry turned a tribute to his 14 years as governor into a rabble-rousing speech about the future of American leadership, laying the groundwork for a potential second presidential run after leaving the Texas stage. In a passionate speech before almost 10,000 GOP delegates at their state convention in Fort Worth, Perry spoke of Washington failures, Texas successes and putting the nation’s future in the hands of better leaders.” His fiery denunciation of Obamacare and the Veterans Affairs scandal were to be expected, but his optimistic, presidential and forward-looking tone was pleasantly surprising:

While praising the Texas economy and baiting Democrats, Perry’s speech frequently employed lyrical words to speak about the nation’s needs to achieve a brighter future.

Throughout his speech he set the tone of a candidate aiming for the White House again.

“We need to set the stage for 2016 when we will win the White House and we will rebuild the American dream,” Perry said.

“We’re too good a country to wander through the wilderness of economic darkness. We must seize our promise at home. We must establish our moral authority overseas. We must live up to our promise,” he said.

He concluded by telling the Republican delegates to “roll up their sleeves” to help rebuild the nation.

“This America we love faces some hard decisions. And it requires better leaders. Leaders willing to do what is difficult rather than what is expedient,” Perry said, exhorting the crowd to “Let’s get to work.”

Likewise the Houston Chronicle observed:

His speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause and cheers from the delegates, which was never louder than it was when Perry reiterated his belief that efforts by the federal government to regulate air pollution, overhaul healthcare (the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare), and reform schools are unconstitutional.

And his attacks against the White House also took aim at the [Veterans] Affairs hospital scandal, which cost VA Secretary Eric Shinseki his job last week.

“If you need any greater evidence that government healthcare doesn’t work, ask a military veteran,” Perry said.

He also spent a few words attacking Texas Democrats and efforts by national Democrats to bolster the state party.

“We don’t need to outsource the Governor’s Office to Hollywood liberals,” he said, using an attack that’s long been a favorite of Republicans.

The Chronicle gets it wrong when it labels his tone in discussing education “more moderate.” In fact, it is very much in keeping with the reform conservatives who advocate revamping the schools but reject the top-down Democratic model that is captive to teachers’ unions:

“Our greatest economic development tool is an educated child,” Perry said, describing the Republican Party’s education reforms as its “greatest legacy.” “Education is the great equalizer. Children of every background are aspiring to learn and they’re succeeding in Texas.”

He later added: “Government must do a few things, and do them very well: It must fund good roads, reliable power, clean water, great schools, but government can’t be all things to all people.”

It is this theme — pruning and reforming — and Perry’s sunny outlook that combine two critical aspects to what we suspect will be the only GOP message that can overcome the Hillary Clinton onslaught. Anti-government rhetoric gets you only so far. A substantive agenda is needed. Decrying the media, the White House and the state of public morality is insufficient and at some point tiresome. But some righteous anger, a call to repair the government and a call to restore American greatness have the potential to stir the party.

If Perry keeps up the level of performance he displayed at the Conservative Political Action Conference gathering this year and at the Texas convention this week, the media and Perry’s opponents will need to start taking him seriously.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.