Lurking behind the anticipation over Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entrance into the Republican primary is a critical question: Can he take social conservatives away from their current favorite, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)?

Perry, to the surprise of many GOP operatives, seems to be aiming to be the darling of the social conservatives rather than to emphasize his impressive fiscal record. In other words, he’s aiming for Bachmann’s base. But it remains to be seen if that is wise.

I met with a prominent social conservative leader with a vast grass-roots network. The leader acknowledged that there is a real danger from social conservatives’ perspective that Bachmann and Perry will carve up the vote and allow Mitt Romney to slide through. Could they get behind one or the other to prevent such a split? The leader laughed, “We’re not very good at that. If we try, we winding up making everyone mad.”

The issues on which Bachmann is skewered in the mainstream media (gay marriage, most clearly) are the very things that endear her to the base. And while she has eschewed playing the media victim, as Sarah Palin often has, it certainly is true that being attacked by liberal pundits and groups does nothing but raise her stock among grass,roots social conservatives.

There is an issue, however, that may be decisive, that on its face has nothing to do with social issues. It is no secret that many social conservatives are part of or share the same principles as the Tea Party, most especially the notion that professional politicians are out of control, feel entitled and don’t live under the same economic constraints as the rest of us.

And this is where it gets dicey for Perry. He and his staff may have weathered the storm over his travel expenses, the extravagance of his rental mansion and the lavish plans to remodel the historic governor’s mansion. But this will be news to most Americans:

RealClearPolitics reporter Scott Conroy points out that the Texas Republican has some questionable taxpayer-funded spending habits that may not pass muster with cost-cutting conservatives.

Here are some highlights from Perry’s publicly-funded personal spending bill, via RCP:

$700,000 for the “lavish” rental home where Perry has lived for nearly four years, while the governor’s mansion is being renovated.

$8,400 for maintenance on the house’s heated pool.

$1,001 for Neiman Marcus window coverings

$1,000 for repairs on a filtered ice machine.

$70 for a home subscription to Food & Wine magazine (this one is sure to draw populist ire).

Perry has previously come under fire for taxpayer-financed house bills. In 2007, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee — a conservative favorite who lived in a trailer while his governor’s residence was under repair — suggested Perry should follow his example and find a good mobile home. Perry’s response: “Texas ain’t Arkansas.”

The Houston Chronicle was one of the Texas media outlets that pummeled Perry: “On the dollars of taxpayers and wealthy donors, Gov. Rick Perry — reared amid the cotton fields of West Texas — gets to live the life of the rich and famous, traveling the world meeting captains of industry, sports stars and royalty. The taxpayers shell out $108,000 a year to rent him an estate west of Austin, and spend another $168,000 on chefs, stewards and housekeepers for the Perrys’ creature comforts.” The Associated Press was on the case a well:

With the state facing a budget shortfall of at least $15 billion, Gov. Rick Perry has spent almost $600,000 in public money during the past two years to live in a sprawling rental home in the hills above the capital, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

It costs more than $10,000 a month in rent, utilities and upkeep to house Perry in a five-bedroom, seven-bath mansion that has pecan-wood floors, a gourmet kitchen and three dining rooms. Perry has also spent $130,000 in campaign donations to throw parties, buy food and drink, and pay for cable TV and a host of other services since he moved in, the records show.

The public spending on Perry’s rental comes as the state grapples with a budget shortfall forecast to reach at least $15 billion over the next two years.

“Anybody who is not offended probably doesn’t know what’s going on,” said Rep. Jim Dunnam of Waco , the Texas House Democratic leader. To spend so much while asking state agencies to spend less, Dunnam said, is “just rank hypocrisy.”

Perry dismissed such criticism with a laugh: “If that’s the best cut anybody’s got of leadership in the state of Texas, then bring it on.”

I suspect his opponents in the primary will.

And that’s not the worst of it. Perry also tried to ram a lavish remodeling plan through the state preservation board, which is stocked with his appointees. The Statesman reported in November 2009:

The Heritage Society of Austin, a leading proponent for rebuilding the fire-gutted Texas Governor’s Mansion, will not support recently revealed plans for a two-story addition to the 153-year-old building.

“How we as Texans treat the mansion sets a standard and sends a signal across our state regarding the inherent value of historic landmarks and preservation of our history,” said Mandy Dealey, society president. “The proposed addition would negatively impact the iconic and symbolic frontal view of the mansion.”

Dealey Herndon, project manager for the mansion restoration, called the group’s opposition regrettable but said she could not comment further until she sees an expected letter outlining the society’s position.

The addition is envisioned for the north side of the mansion, adding about 2,000 square feet of living space largely devoted to private quarters for the first family. Though final designs have not been completed, an enclosed walkway would connect the addition to the mansion.

Eventually Perry had to abandon the plan and offer a scaled-down version. By January 2010 the plan was scrapped:

The increasingly controversial plan to build an addition onto the historic Texas Governor’s Mansion has been withdrawn from further consideration, officials just announced. . . .

Since it was first unveiled in November, the project has become a lightning rod for increasing criticism of the design and the secrecy under which the project has been handled.

By last week, two former governors, at least 10 former historical commission members, and prominent architects, historians and historical preservation groups had come out in opposition to the proposed addition.

It has also posed an increasing political liability for Gov. Rick Perry, with several opponents publicly opposing the project and criticizing him for not being satisfied with the 8,900 square of space in the present structure. The mansion currently includes about 3,000 square feet of private quarters for the first family.

Why is all of this a problem with social conservatives? Well, the social conservative leader with whom I spoke said that an elected official’s extravagant lifestyle is precisely what generates outrage among social conservatives. It is not simply a financial issue; it rises for these voters to a character issue.

Is this sort of failure to “walk the walk” going to be problematic for Perry? Yes. Will it be enough to doom his candidacy — if he decides to run? Probably not. But it suggests that the Perry won’t have anything like a quick and decisive knockout punch. In fact, he’ll be defending himself from more than a few knocks.