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Why Rick Perry’s indictment could be a political blessing in disguise

Less than a week after Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was indicted by a grand jury on two felony counts, he may be in an even stronger political position than he was before the charges hit.

Several prominent Republicans have spoken out on Perry's behalf. Conservative activists in Iowa and New Hampshire aren't shying away. Even a well-known Democratic strategist has suggested the case against him may be flimsy.

For a politician who is openly weighing another run for president, it's a welcome turn of events: While politicians embroiled in legal fights of this magnitude typically find few public allies, Perry has been quickly backed by a small army of conservative supporters.

"Kind of  ironically, it's helped him," said Craig Robinson, founder of the Iowa Republican, a conservative news Web site. "I think people kind of see this as an overreach, and he's kind of the victim."

David Kochel, who was Mitt Romney's top Iowa advisor, said the particulars of the Perry case -- he vetoed funding to an anti-corruption unit after a district attorney who pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated refused to step down -- will endear him to conservatives in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

"I think he comes out of this looking like a champion for ethical government," said Kochel.

Republican Governors Association Chairman Chris Christie (R), New Jersey governor and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, released a statement Monday saying he has "complete faith and confidence in Governor Perry's honesty and integrity." Over the weekend, a trio of other potential White House hopefuls also voiced support: Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said Perry is the target of a politically-motivated attack.

The governor was indicted Friday on two felony counts. The indictment alleges he abused his power and coerced an elected official.

Perry asked Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, to step down after her drunken driving arrest and threatened withhold $7.5 million in funding for an anti-corruption unit that operates in her office if she refused. She didn't leave. He made good on his promise to veto the money.

The governor has been traveling the country trying to rehabilitate his image after a disastrous 2012 campaign. He was recently in Iowa, and is scheduled to go to two more early states, New Hampshire and South Carolina, in the next two weeks.

Republicans there are still happy to see him.

"It appears that partisan political operatives are trying to smear the governor for demanding accountability from a politician who had lost the public's confidence after she was convicted of a crime and thrown in jail," New Hampshire Republican Party Chair Jennifer Horn said in a statement. Perry is slated to visit that state Saturday.

Former South Carolina Republican Party chairman Katon Dawson, a Perry supporter who is helping arrange his events when he visits next week, said governor remains in high demand. Voters take drunk driving very seriously, he said, and aren't likely to have much sympathy for Lehmberg.

"In my opinion, there hasn't been any damage" to Perry's brand, said Dawson, of the indictment. "It's been an asset."

Perry isn't the only potential GOP White House hopeful to come under legal clouds this year. Christie is facing probes from state legislators and federal prosecutors over the so-called "Bridgegate" scandal in which his former aides and appointees caused traffic problems in an apparent act of political retribution. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) was linked to an investigation into an alleged illegal coordination scheme.

The Travis County district attorney's office also has a history of taking on powerful Republicans, but falling short when prosecuting their cases. It went after then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) and then-House whip Tom DeLay (R) -- but the case against Hutchison collapsed, and the one against DeLay was overturned on appeal, though it damaged his political career beyond repair.

David Axelrod, a former top aide to President Obama, tweeted Saturday that, "Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, [the] Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy."

Even the New York Times editorial board, a Perry critic, wrote, "his ill-advised veto still doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a criminal act."

Perry, who is winding down his tenure as the longest-serving governor in state history, has maintained his innocence. He argues that he acted entirely within his rights as governor, and has assembled a legal team that vowed Monday to fight the charges he is facing.

The team includes Ben Ginsberg, a Washington-based attorney who worked on George W. Bush's 2000 Florida election recount team. Also defending Perry are Texas-based attorneys David Botsford, Tony Buzbee and Tom Phillips, as well as Washington-based lawyer Bobby Burchfield.

"Gov. Perry will fight this indictment 100 percent," Buzbee said at a press conference in Austin. "And at the end of the day he will prevail."

Buzbee said the state of Texas would pay for "some part" of Perry's defense. He did not say how much.

The head of the watchdog group that first brought forward an ethics complaint against him insists it's not Perry's veto that was the problem -- it was his threat.

"We have said all along it's not about the veto,"  Texans for Public Justice director Craig McDonald said Sunday on CNN. "We believe he had the right to veto it. It was his decision to veto it. It was about the intimidation before the veto. It was about him using the veto to as a coercion tactic to get [Lehmberg] to do something she didn't want to do."

Voicing support for Perry is not without risk for Republican officials and activists. There is still a possibility he will be convicted, even sentenced to jail time.  But that doesn't seem to worry them right now.

"If he is convicted, it's bad for one person: Rick Perry," said Robinson.