By all accounts, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is seriously weighing another run for president in 2016. But his remarks at a San Francisco forum Wednesday underscored one of his main challenges: sticking to the script.
In an appearance at the Commonwealth Club of California, Perry likened homosexuality to alcoholism. His remarks received national attention Thursday and were panned by gay rights activists. The events raised questions about whether Perry's apparent attempts to soften his image and convince donors and power brokers he can run a viable campaign against stiff competition after falling flat in 2012 can work.
"Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that," Perry said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. "I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way."
Gregory T. Angelo, head of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group, said, "My immediate reaction was an eye roll because it seems like Rick Perry has learned none of the lessons he should have taken away form the 2012 election cycle."
Added Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, "When you go out and make comments like that, mega-donors and key activists and voters are shaking their heads."
Perry is set to step down at the end of this term as the longest-serving governor in Texas history. Over the past year, he has been traveling the country to promote Texas's economic climate and try to poach businesses from other states.
It's all part of a strategy seen by many as an attempt to soften his image as a freewheeling and sometimes controversial governor in favor of emphasizing his fiscal chops. Those who know him well say underscoring economic matters in something he tried but failed to do in 2012.
"The Rick Perry you see now is the Rick Perry people thought he would be in 2012," said Dave Carney, one of his top 2012 campaign advisers.
After entering the race to heavy hype, Perry fizzled. His disappointing campaign was perhaps most memorable for what came to be known as his "Oops" moment. During a debate, Perry struggled to name a government agency he vowed to shutter as president.
Wading into a social debate as he did Wednesday, some say, has shades of the missteps that veered him off-message in 2012. Those mistakes threatens derail his effort to reboot, if not rebrand altogether.
"Up until today, Rick Perry had done a tremendous job repositioning himself as strong fiscal conservative who was not going to get mired down in social issues," Angelo said.
As he winds down his tenure, Perry looks and sounds a lot less like a politician in his twilight years than a candidate ramping up for a second White House run he hopes will go very differently than his first.
"He's going to run for president," said veteran Texas Republican strategist Bill Miller. "There is no question in my mind based on what I see."
Perry was recently in the early nominating state of Iowa for the third time in six months. Next month, he is headed to South Carolina, another important state in the nomination process. He's also huddled with New Hampshire Republicans and even challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to a debate.
Some Republicans say that when Perry talks about social issues, it's no accident and that he's courting conservative voters who dominate the early contests in Iowa and South Carolina. Perry has compared homosexuality to alcoholism before.
"When he talks about homosexuality instead of the economic debate, he's really talking to his audience in Iowa," said Miller, who added, "those people will make or break him."
If Perry runs in 2016, he is likely to face a higher level of competition for the Republican nomination than before. Gone are the days of Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Herman Cain. In their place could be rising Republican stars like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).
But that doesn't seem to have deterred Perry, who has signaled that his decision could be coming by later this year.
"America is a great place for second chances," he told ABC's Jimmy Kimmel in March.