Rick Perry is confident, but is he ready?

December 11, 2011

He has always had it, an ease and a charm that only the naturals possess, a confidence that bears the stamp of a man aware of his gifts.

Never were Rick Perry’s talents more evident than during the opening weekend of his Republican presidential campaign — a heady period that seems long ago now, overshadowed since by his debate slip-ups and other rhetorical gaffes that have sent his prospects tumbling. He had traveled to the New Hampshire town of Greenland for a meet-and-greet, with his poll numbers at their zenith. Beaming, he waded into the throng. Sometimes, he worked the people two at a time. He gently clasped the hand of someone to his side — essentially holding the appreciative stranger until ready to turn and woo her — while looking deeply into the eyes of the person straight ahead. He lingered, making conversation about lives, hobbies, jobs. Finally, he turned back to the person whose hand he held. Many of the previously uncommitted there pledged support on the spot to the man then regarded as the chief threat to Mitt Romney.

Watching the candidate that August day was David Hurst, the 31-year-old chairman of the New Hampshire Young Republicans. He had never seen another politician forge bonds more quickly.

“Perry came away with a lot of supporters, which you don’t often see in New Hampshire this early,” Hurst said the next afternoon. “Perry establishes an amazing emotional connection.”

Hurst, who has not endorsed any candidate, had simply discovered what old Texas friends and rivals of the 61-year-old Perry had long known: Few others could match his allure in one-on-one encounters. What Hurst did not know was that Perry’s charisma belied an uncertainty he had about his presidential bid. Back in Texas, the governor had vacillated about a White House candidacy for months.

Royal Masset, a former political director of the Texas Republican Party, observed that Perry didn’t seem to have “the fire in the belly” for such an endeavor. But then Masset went further: “I am not talking only about this campaign. . . . I don’t think Rick ever really has had the killer instinct. People always had to talk him into races. I think things came to him too early and easily here. Being confident doesn’t always mean being around-the-clock ambitious, which you need to be for this. . . . Not even Rick’s confidence can make up for that.”

That confidence sprung from no crossroads moment that anyone around him could see. It was always just there, friends say, as if coded in Perry’s DNA from the time he came of age on his family’s farm. His father and great-grandfather had served as county commissioners in Texas; a great-great-grandfather had been a judge. Perry grew up hearing stories of his father’s public service. Leadership was in his blood.

Despite the titles, Perry’s family had little money. His parents, Ray and Amelia Perry, were tenant farmers in Texas’s tough Haskell County, and Perry was raised in a small house without indoor plumbing during part of his childhood. Separated by long distances from other farms, he spent a lot of time alone with his dog and a family horse. But he never seemed to want for anything. The little community of Paint Creek was hugely supportive of children, and Perry thrived.

“He’s very comfortable with himself — he knows who he is . . . and grateful for the values he learned,” says Reggie Bashur, a Perry campaign adviser.

A scoutmaster named Gene Overton, who also served as president of the school board, took Perry under his wing. Perry rose to become an Eagle Scout and a role model for other children. He attended the tiny Paint Creek School through elementary and high school, emerging as a big steer in a little pasture. On his way to graduating third among his high school class of 13, he played quarterback on the school’s six-man football team. He had fun and a sure sense of his appeal. In a story passed around by Perry friends like a treasured bit of slightly apocryphal lore, a wisecracking Perry took a hard hit in a game. While trying to recover, he mumbled to a coach: “I’m okay. But how are the fans taking it?”

Soon, in what struck Perry as one of the best breaks of his life, he was off to Texas A&M University, where he quickly exhibited his leadership skills — sometimes mischievously so. As a freshman, he inspired others in the art of rule-breaking. He recruited a pack of avenging dorm mates to trash the room of a boorish upperclassman, proof to his friends that no antagonist would ever deter him.

Such self-assurance has accounted for most of his major moves in life and politics. But what has happened in his four-month presidential campaign has demonstrated the limits of how far confidence can take a driven person without ample preparation. Having fretted for so long over the past year about whether to run, Perry left himself little time to get ready. After he made early gaffes, the greatest surprise of all occurred: His confidence ebbed on the trail and during interviews. In October, after faring poorly in the opening debates, he told Fox News Channel that “if there was a mistake made, it was probably ever doing one of these [debates] when all they’re interested in is stirring up between the candidates.”

Nothing has been quite the same in Perryland since.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, a Texas conservative activist whose friendship with Perry goes back two decades, sat down for a chat with the governor last December. Perry looked as serious as Sullivan had ever seen him. “People were talking publicly about a possible candidacy,” Sullivan recounts, “and [Perry] said to me, ‘I’m just not sure.’ . . . June, July, he was still thinking about it. . . . He really didn’t have to have this.”

By then, Sullivan recalls, Perry’s wife, Anita, was saying he needed to run. Still uncertain but preparing for all contingencies, Perry had begun to contact donors, alerting them that he might enter the race. Simultaneously, he was exuding a weary ambivalence to trusted friends. One longtime ally, who asked not to be identified out of concern that he might offend Perry’s campaign staff, came away from a discussion with Perry believing that the governor did not need the White House.

Sullivan sensed the pressure building and believed Perry was genuinely torn.

“He said, ‘If I get in, I want to do the right things,’ ” Sullivan remembers. “But he still wasn’t sure. . . . While we talked, he kept asking, ‘Where can I make the most impact? Where can I?’ ”

Soon, Perry, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was in the race and on the road, projecting the trademark confidence and the bantering style of a man known in Texas for shooting from the hip. But there is a thin line in politics between confidence and hubris, and Perry’s career had not readied him for high-stakes debates: He had made a habit of avoiding them in Texas. What happened next was a karmic rebuke for his lack of preparation. He stumbled over facts in televised showdowns with his rivals. He was skewered by Romney once in an exchange about immigration. And his worst moment was still far down the road: In an early November debate, during a pained 57-second span that would open Perry to ridicule and threaten to derail his campaign, he began talking about the three Cabinet departments he vowed to eliminate, only to forget in mid-answer the last of them. “Oops,” he said, wincing.

“It’s a different game,” Masset said. “He never had enough time to think through what he was taking on; he got in rushed. And, in that way, it was like a lot of his political life, right from the start.”

Perry had never openly dreamed about politics in the way some young men do. At Texas A&M, one of his closest dorm mates, John Sharp — the student body president who would one day find himself in an improbable race against Perry for lieutenant governor — had thought early of entering politics, soon on his way to winning a seat in the Texas state legislature. But Perry, a popular “yell leader” whose job it was on game days to direct the cheers of the student body for A&M’s big-time football program and other athletic squads, had different ambitions.

“He really wanted to be a veterinarian,” said someone close to Perry who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You’re talking about a guy who spent a lot of time around horses. He had a passion for animals. But some of the science courses, the prerequisites for [veterinarian] study were tough for him. He wasn’t going to be a vet — he could see that.”

After his graduation, Perry flew cargo planes as an Air Force captain, but, at age 27, he was out of the military, having passed on an opportunity to ascend in rank and responsibility. He wanted only to get back to his home town of Paint Creek and farm.

“I was lost,” he recalled last month during a Family Leader presidential forum in Iowa. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy.”

A few years passed. In 1984, more than a decade after their campus days together, Sharp called Perry with a proposition. By then a young Democratic star in the Texas state Senate, Sharp was part of a group interested in having Perry run as a Democrat for an open seat in the Texas House.

Perry did not immediately jump at the chance. He would never jump when it came to politics. As Sharp recalls, Perry asked him how much the job paid.

“Six hundred a month,” Sharp answered.

“That’s good money,” Perry observed.

Soon, Perry had made a name for himself in the Texas House as an outspoken member of the Pit Bulls — a group of fiscally conservative legislators.

By 1989, however, Perry had concluded that he had no real future as a Democrat. He told friends that perhaps he would get out of politics, become a lobbyist and finally begin making a better income.

But new opportunities fell in his lap. His closest friend, David Weeks, an advertising specialist and political convert himself, persuaded Perry to change parties and consider a run for statewide office. Ready to handle TV advertising for any campaign, Weeks next turned to Karl Rove, the state’s leading Republican strategist, who regarded Perry as a telegenic star-in-waiting. Along with Weeks, Rove convinced the hesitant Perry that running for state agriculture commissioner in 1990 against the formidable Democratic incumbent, Jim Hightower, was a no-lose proposition. Even if he fell short, Rove explained, Perry would emerge as a conservative stalwart, making him more attractive than ever to well-heeled Texas lobbying firms.

Perry entered the race.

Weeks then shot one of the most famous television ads in Texas political history, one known as “The Marl­boro Man,” which featured Perry, in cowboy hat and chaps, riding a horse on the Texas range. He was on his way to victory.

The extraordinary boost from the spot, along with the good notices Perry received from meet-and-greet campaign events, would shape his style thereafter, in races for lieutenant governor and governor. Relying on personal appearances and TV ads, Perry largely ignored the news media and its attendant scrutiny.

He routinely declined to meet with newspaper editorial boards for question-and-answer sessions. His chief strategist, Dave Carney — whom Rove had recommended to Perry and Weeks — made no secret of his desire to minimize televised debates against Texas opponents.

“People tend to avoid exposure when they’re winning,” Carney said casually during a telephone interview two months ago. “We had our own goals. We always have wanted for [Perry] to spend more time out meeting people . . . and emphasizing what he does well.”

To those who know Perry best, it is a surprise to see so much made of a few badly chosen words in a debate or on the campaign trail. Not even his most publicized gaffes ever seriously hurt him in Texas, where, if anything, loyalists always viewed them as confirmation of his rough-hewn sincerity.

“Rick will stand up and say what’s on his mind,” Sullivan says. “We like that.”

His words and behavior elicited a similar reaction from his Texas base in 2006, when he got out of a state car, as videotape later revealed, to confront a police officer who was issuing Perry’s driver a warning for going too fast. “Why don’t you just let us get on down the road,” Perry snapped at the officer.

At home, the incident simply buttressed the image of the maverick who had pushed back all his life against what he regarded as overbearing authority. He was a political lightning rod whose statements throughout the past decade sometimes placed him well outside the margins of even his own party. But his offhand talk about such topics as Texas secession, and his written disgust for such things as the “Ponzi scheme” that he said Social Security is, endeared him to his base. When the state’s senior senator, moderate Kay Bailey Hutchison, challenged him in a 2010 primary, he wiped her out.

His recent campaign struggles have left Texas political analysts wondering whether his relatively easy political victories in Texas led to a serious miscalculation about the appetites of the national electorate.

“I think they’ve had problems calibrating their Texas approach to the . . . race now,” says James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Last Wednesday, in dire need of publicity, Perry met in Washington with a band of congressmen to talk about health care. The venue presented him with a high-profile opportunity to lay out his own plan and skewer Democrats in the process. Two challengers — former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) — had met with the same group and permitted the media to observe. But operating with its characteristic leeriness, the Perry team said no to the presence of outsiders.

The episode spoke to the campaign’s conundrum: Could Perry risk the very exposure he courted? Some Texas Republicans such as Masset viewed the moment as evidence that Perry’s famous self-assurance was swiftly waning.

“He and his people look uncertain,” Masset observed. “If you haven’t done everything in your career to be ready for something like this, then there are going to be mistakes and you’re going to start doubting yourself.”

For now, at least, the governor who ascended on the wings of a folksy confidence has fallen to Earth.

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