Does Rick Perry even want to leave Texas?

The latest suggestion that he had to be talked into running for president comes straight from she who did the talking — the candidate’s wife, Anita Perry.

In an emotional speech Thursday at South Carolina’s North Greenville University about his time on the campaign trail, she set the scene in detail: After he was elected to a third term as Texas governor last November, she said, “there was a nagging, a pulling at my heart for him to run for president. He didn’t want to hear a thing about running for president; he was happy being the governor of Texas. He was good being the governor of Texas.”

In her talk, Perry seemed beleaguered and bowled over by the presidential campaign experience, summing it up this way: “It’s been a rough month.’’ Back when she was still persuading her husband to run, she quotes him as saying, “I don’t want to hear this.” But, she said, “God was already speaking to me, but he felt like he needed to see the burning bush. I said, ‘Let me tell you something: You might not see the burning bush, but other people are seeing it for you.’ ”

Her intended point, or one of them, seemed to be that he isn’t one of these born-for-the-Oval Office types who has been wanting the Big Job all his life but is there because God called him, repeatedly, and she passed on the message.

At this point, though, is the Texas governor having second thoughts about his second thoughts?

Perry spokesman Mark Miner said that anyone who wonders whether the pilot light has gone out on his candidate’s campaign clearly has not seen him on the stump “15 hours a day, seven days a week.” Of Anita Perry’s remarks, he said, “It doesn’t change anything; once the decision was made, he was in 100 percent, is campaigning vigorously and never would have done that if he didn’t intend to become president of the United States.”

That did not come through at the latest debate, on Tuesday night, in which he hung back when he needed to press forward and deferred when he needed to dominate. And after several such outings, he has fallen so far so fast that Mitt Romney’s team is serving him the ultimate insult: It no longer bothers talking him down. Perry’s other rivals also have gone from ganging up on him to treating him like any other second-tier candidate.

And the notion that Perry is not exactly ablaze to become the 45th president is costing him. After the debate, Matthew Dowd, a former George W. Bush strategist, remarked: “The way he’s performed, he certainly acted like he didn’t want to go to Washington.” Debate moderator Charlie Rose said maybe people should have believed him when he initially said he didn’t intend to join the race.

Like everything else about running for president, the “fire in the belly” test is tricky. Voters tend to like candidates who want it enough to work for it — Bush, for example, came in for some of the same criticism as Perry, ridiculed for keeping a relatively light campaign schedule and traveling with his pillow. But they don’t like it when candidates are so openly ambitious that they come off as willing to do anything to win — John McCain 2.0 was accused of this — or when they appear to be just plain desperate, as Al Gore was accused of being.

Miner said that his boss was merely “following the rules of the debate” in not inserting himself more aggressively on Tuesday, and that out among the general public, no one wonders whether Perry wants the White House badly enough. Debates aren’t everything, it’s true; they weren’t Barack Obama’s best event in 2008 and are now so numerous that a couple of off nights can more than be made up for on the stump, where Perry does tend to kick derriere. Perry’s next stop will be on Friday in Pittsburgh, where he plans to talk about energy and job creation.

Still, he seems oddly unmotivated during these required outings, and at the recent forum, in Hanover, N.H., he not only looked as though he didn’t want to be there, but admitted as much: “Debates are not my strong suit,” he told reporters afterward. “But you know, we get up and do ’em, and we just try to let people see our passion.”

With Romney on a roll, Perry can’t afford to hang back while every other candidate scores points. It is not an exaggeration to say that comedian Jon Stewart has gone after Romney’s flip-flops harder than Perry has. And with $17 million in his campaign coffers, why aren’t the ads making Romney look scary on the air already?

“We’re going to spend our money efficiently and prudently at the appropriate time,’’ Miner said.

Wouldn’t that be now?

“We’re not going to go into it, but we’ll use all available resources.”

Meanwhile, Miner insists that the only difference between Perry’s campaign experience in Texas and on the national stage boils down to this: “It’s just longer plane rides.”

But former Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon described a much craggier learning curve.

“He looks surprised, ill-prepared and unconditioned,” he said of Perry. “You can’t fake it at this level. It is designed to expose your flaws. The process of running for president is brutal. It strips you naked and runs you through the streets. And the question can’t be ‘Will you do it?’ but ‘Do you want to do it enough to put in the hard work it requires?’ ”

He added: “The answer for Perry seems to be no.”

Bush and Perry aren’t exactly friends, and McKinnon acknowledges that Perry certainly has the time and money to survive. But — ouch alert — “all the time and money in the world won’t help him if he can’t show up to a debate and at least appear to be awake and have done some homework.’’

Anita Perry said her husband is more than awake and ready to do some homework, describing the family as “all in.”

“We still feel called to do this,’’ she said, even after a month of being “brutalized by our opponents in our own party.’’


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