The Rick Perry of 2014 bears little resemblance, literally, to his 2012 incarnation. Texas’s Republican governor now sports Clark Kent-like glasses, which give him a more cerebral look. Moreover, he’s loose and funny, as he showed on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”:

The self-deprecating humor (“You know, America is a great place for second chances”; “If you want to find out everything, I mean everything, about yourself, some of which is even true, run for president”) works to humanize him and tone down the Texas swagger.

The stark change may, in fact, be attributable to Perry’s full recovery from painful back surgery in 2012. Or it may be that he wasn’t adequately prepared in 2012 for what lay ahead. It’s a truism that running for president is easier the second time (Ronald Reagan, John McCain and Mitt Romney all got the nomination the second time they ran). Campaigns are always an exercise in relativity — who is the better (or the least-bad) of the candidates? With characters such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on the stage, Rick Perry may seem comparatively mild-mannered.

He will have a number of challenges, obviously, aside from the impression he left in 2012. He gets less free media now than hotter, newer conservatives. He has a moderate stance on immigration that may rub the hard right the wrong way. The country and the party may still have a Texas hangover and want a persona clearly different from the previous Republican president.

And, as Peter Wehner points out, Perry can rattle mainstream conservatives with rhetoric that sounds like “the federal government should have no role in education, health care and clean air and water.” This gets to another problem from 2012: It was never clear what Perry wanted to do if or when he got to Washington, D.C. At times it sounded like he wanted to overhaul Social Security. At other times he focused on procedural issues (e.g., make Congress part-time).

In order to get into the top tier of candidates, I think Perry will need to do three things:

  • First, he’ll have to explain how he is going to make average people’s lives better if he becomes president. This entails not only connecting some abstract principles to people’s day-to-day concerns but also defining a conservative reform agenda. If he wants to literally do nothing (no Obamacare replacement, for example) other than undo the last eight years, that will be attractive to a segment of voters, but nowhere near the numbers he will need to rise in the polls.
  • Second, Perry — like other governors who have not popped off or zig-zagged all over the map on foreign policy — can be the grown-up in the debates on national security. He would likely be the only candidate who’s been in the military. He can make the case for an anti-Obama foreign policy that is not caricatured as “constant war” or “George Bush III.” Perry ran before, put together a pretty solid foreign policy team and now has the luxury of preparation. It is a feasible way of raising his stature and knocking his opponents down a peg or two.
  • And finally, Perry, as a successful governor in a red state, can redefine the fairness, inequality and compassion issues. What’s compassionate? Creating more than a third of the country’s new jobs in the last decade and seeing over half a million people over the course of his governorship find the dignity of work, the economic security to provide their family and help build thriving communities. Not only can he claim success, but he can personalize the conversation with real people, real cities and real accomplishments (public and private) that the Texas job boom produced. Other governors may have this claim as well, but given the volume of Texas’s job creation he might be uniquely positioned to make that case.

Actually, explaining how he’ll improve people’s lives, being a grown-up on national security and demonstrating the human benefits from a conservative economic policy may be the winning formula for any of the GOP contenders. The one who does this the best — and projects a steady, empathetic and good-humored character — is very likely to win the nomination, and maybe the presidency. That’s how the last two-term GOP presidents did it.