The Take: Is Perry built for a general election?

Correction: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly referred to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) as a former senator. Hutchison has announced that she will not seek reelection next year, but she plans to complete her current term. This version has been corrected.

Dan Balz
Chief correspondent August 16, 2011

It has become clear, only a few days into Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, that the Texas governor’s biggest challenge could come in trying to win the Republican nomination without defining himself out of the general election.

Perry was dealing with a controversy of his own making on Tuesday after saying the previous night that he would regard another round of “quantitative easing” of the money supply as a politically motivated, “treasonous” act by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Back on the trail in Iowa on Tuesday, Perry appeared less eager to answer questions from reporters, but he refused to back down from the controversy that had erupted. “I’m just passionate about the issue, and we stand by what we said,” he told two reporters as he left a luncheon in Dubuque.

Asked about the Fed in Cedar Rapids on Monday night, Perry said of Bernanke: “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don’t know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.”

The attack was unusual; major presidential candidates normally criticize the independent Fed delicately, if at all. And while President Obama appointed him to a second term as Fed chief in 2009, Bernanke had served in the White House under President George W. Bush, who first appointed him to the Fed chairmanship.

Perry’s comments drew a rebuke from many Democrats. More telling was the fact that a number of Republicans, some associated with Bush, also criticized him for being unpresidential. “Governor Perry is going to have to fight the impression that he’s a cowboy from Texas,” said Karl Rove, a critic of Perry in the past, on Fox News. “This simply added to it.”

Perry did not respond when asked by reporters for a reaction to the criticism.

Perry has served more than a decade as governor of the Lone Star State and knows what it takes to win there. But he is on less familiar terrain as he moves to the national stage. In both style and substance, he will be measured differently from ever before, as the opening days of his presidential campaign have shown.

His candidacy has begun with great promise and anticipation. Overnight, Perry has been identified as the Republican who may be best positioned to challenge the current front-runner, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for the nomination.

Perry is a robust conservative in a GOP in which the tea party movement and social conservatives hold great sway. He is also a leader with the potential to appeal more to the party establishment, but perhaps only if he can convince Republicans that he is the most electable of their candidates.

Perry loyalists may regard the Bernanke episode as a mini-storm that will pass quickly, a blip that will be written off as part of the learning curve for a new candidate. Maybe they are correct, particularly if Perry quickly learns from the experience.

Other Republicans may see in Perry the kind of candidate they are looking for to challenge the president in the general election, someone who is tough, brash and unafraid to speak his mind — a Michele Bachmann with real executive governing experience.

Many of the attributes Perry has shown this week are ones that could make him a compelling candidate. They provide a potentially striking contrast with Romney, who is more cautious and still dogged by issues of trust and authenticity.

Romney ought to be worried. Perry showed last year, when he demolished Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Texas gubernatorial primary, that he knows how to beat an establishment Republican like Romney.

But is it all too much? Even before this week, there were questions from political strategists who have watched Perry as to how suited he is for a general-election campaign, in which he would have to appeal to independent voters, to suburban women around Philadelphia and Denver, to older voters in Florida, and to those who will hold the balance in swing states such as Iowa.

And Perry suffers from the inevitable comparisons with the Texan who was most recently in the Oval Office. Bush and Perry are strikingly different politicians, and in Texas the rivalry between their two camps is well known. But to the untrained ears of the national electorate, Perry may sound too much like another brash Texan for voters not eager to revisit the Bush years.

Another obstacle may be learning to broaden his appeal. Texas-based strategists say Perry has focused his campaigns almost completely on the Republican base and conservative independents. That may not be enough to win a national race, unless the dissatisfaction with the economy and Obama’s leadership make 2012 a race that is the Republicans’ to lose.

What is considered the conservative mainstream in Texas may be too conservative in other parts of America. What worked in Texas won’t necessarily work elsewhere. Being too Texan, never much of a problem at home, could hurt him nationally. Aspects of his record that Perry may assume have been fully litigated could become problems when the national spotlight begins to shine.

The Republicans who worry about Perry as a general-election candidate fear that he is too conservative on social issues, too grounded in the idiom of Texas, too enamored of his 10th Amendment, states’ rights message.

They also worry about more rhetoric like his comment about Bernanke, or his response to a reporter who asked whether he thought Obama loves America: “You need to ask him.” Or his suggestion that a president who has never worn the uniform, like Obama, may be less respected than one, like him, who has.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked the president Tuesday whether he found Perry’s comments disrespectful. “You know, Mr. Perry just got into the presidential race,” Obama said. “I think that everybody who runs for president, it probably takes them a little bit of time before they start realizing that this isn’t like running for governor or running for senator or running for Congress, and you’ve got to be a little more careful about what you say. But I’ll cut him some slack.”

Perry would present the sharpest possible contrast with Obama in an election that is likely to be fought on big issues and along ideological lines. His advisers believe that the unhappiness with Obama and worries about debt, deficits and the growth of government mean that voters will find the Texas governor’s message appealing.

But not all Republicans agree. As one GOP strategist put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment, Perry has “a strong, deep, red-state vibe” that will be “great for primaries, but not in blue states we need to win” the general election.

Perry’s stump speech includes a line that, as president, he will try to make Washington “as inconsequential in your lives as possible.” He so strongly believes that states can run almost everything better than Washington that he told a group of business leaders in Dubuque on Tuesday that one possible solution to the Social Security solvency problem would be to allow states to set up retirement programs.

“Are there ways the states could take over those programs and run them more efficiently than the federal government?” he asked. He was quick to add, “I’m not necessarily advocating” such a change, but he argued that as part of the consideration of how to fix federal entitlement programs, such ideas ought to be on the table.

That may be less government than even some independents unhappy with Obama are prepared to consider. That will be Perry’s challenge: to calibrate his message and conduct his campaign in a way that resonates with his base without turning off the other voters he would need in November 2012.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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