His prospective candidacy looms large over the GOP race. Without much effort on his part, other than a few strategic appearances and a powerful echo chamber, Perry is already being cast as the most likely candidate to challenge Mitt Romney’s standing as the front-runner for the party’s nomination.
If that’s the case, Mark McKinnon, who was a top adviser to President George W. Bush, has a warning for the former Massachusetts governor. “I think he will put Romney in the microwave and turn it up to high,” he said. “Romney’s been avoiding the heat so far, but not when Perry gets in.”
That is the most colorful way of saying what a number of Texans who have watched Perry closely over the years agree on, which is that he has proved to be a skilled and disciplined candidate with an instinct for where the base of his party stands and a style on the stump that is as aggressive as it is conservative.
Paul Burka, the veteran political writer for Texas Monthly, recently wrote an article called “Dear Yankee.” It was a plea for all the Northern reporters from national publications who will be making the pilgrimage to Austin not to deal in old and foolish stereotypes in assessing Perry — or Texas.
Burka, who has come to understand Perry’s strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone in the state, had much to say of value. Among other things, he noted that the governor with the big head of hair should not be dismissed as a “soft or feckless” pretty boy, as if he were a Republican version of the Democratic Breck Boy, John Edwards.
“Perry is a hard man,” Burka wrote. “He is the kind of politician who would rather be feared than loved — or respected. And he has gotten his wish. Perry does not have many friends in the [Texas] Legislature.”
Asked what non-Texans may understand least about Perry, McKinnon said: “What they don’t know is that he’s probably much more tested than people think. He’s been through some very, very tough campaigns. He’s pretty battle-tested. The national scene is a different deal, but he is a vigorous, aggressive, disciplined campaigner — and knuckles-out.”
He has never lost an election and as a Republican he has never hugged the center — a potential problem in a general election but not in the primary of the current Republican Party. Instead he has developed near-perfect pitch with the party’s conservative base. He has what another Texan calls “an instinctual read” on the Republican Party, something few people say about Romney.
Perry sounded the tea party’s bugle even before most people understood what a force that movement would become within the Republican Party. When he talked about secession back in 2009, Democrats saw it as a blunder by a lightweight. But it resonated with conservatives fed up with Washington.