Is there really a new Rick Perry? Is the Candidate Oops of 2011 and 2012, whose rise and fall is the stuff of political lore, a thing of the past? You might think so because of everything that has happened this summer. But is he really ready to run for president again?
Over the past few months, the Republican Texas governor has enjoyed a political renaissance. He has been to Iowa, was in New Hampshire last weekend and has been in South Carolina this week, meeting and greeting his way through the early presidential primary and caucus states.
He has waded into national issues. He has taken on President Obama over border security. He has spoken critically of the administration on foreign policy at the Heritage Foundation. He has appeared on Sunday talk shows and given numerous interviews. Along the way, he has scooped up favorable coverage from a once-scornful media.
Oh, yes. He also was indicted by a grand jury in Austin — two felony counts of abuse of power. How has he responded? Since the indictment, he has tried to take something of a victory lap. He has dismissed the charges as a farce and his political action committee is selling T-shirts for $25 a pop that feature the mug shot from his booking.
In Texas, Perry has managed to overshadow the race to succeed him. Republican attorney general Greg Abbott and Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis are in what was thought to be a big-time contest, after 14 years of the Perry era (the longest of any governor in Texas history). But Perry hasn’t given them much room. He seems determined to spend his final months in office raising his profile and bolstering his credentials for another presidential campaign.
All of this is a marked change from the Perry who decided to seek the presidency in 2012 almost as an afterthought and who underestimated what it would take to run a serious campaign.
At this time four years ago, he was focused on reelection and foreswearing any interest in running for president. As a defender of the 10th Amendment and the right of states to handle their own affairs, Perry expressed no interest in coming to Washington to manage a federal government that he said was overly intrusive. Remember that in the book he published in late 2010, he described Social Security as a vast Ponzi scheme that was possibly unconstitutional.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that he really became interested in running for president. After little more than six weeks of preparation, he was in the race. He zoomed to the top of the polls until attacks from his rivals and self-inflicted wounds destroyed his candidacy. He was dead before the first snows in Iowa.
It is that disastrous first impression that he is now struggling to put behind him. The question is whether he can, and the current balance sheet leaves it unanswerable.
People who know Perry well, who have either worked with him closely over the years or watched him in his capacity as governor, see a prospective candidate who is more confident and comfortable than the Perry who ran in 2011.
“He’s more engaged and enthusiastic,” said Matthew Dowd, who was a top adviser in both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns and now is an independent analyst. “I think he seems much more confident.”
Ray Sullivan, who served as one of the governor’s closest advisers for many years, said, “Comfortable is the word I keep coming back to. It’s been noticeable.” Several Iowa Republicans said Perry is making a positive impression with voters there. He has what one Iowan called “really remarkable retail skills” and is putting them to use in the kind of small settings for which Iowa is known.
Bob Haus, a longtime Republican strategist in Iowa who was part of Perry’s 2012 operation and remains part of his team, said in an e-mail message, “He could stand around and show pictures of his grandchild and family on his iPhone all night long if we let him. He came from very humble beginnings and he is respectful to people. I know that sounds silly, but it’s important in Iowa and New Hampshire.”
Others who have been close to Perry, 64, note that this time around, he is healthy — no small thing. Before he jumped into the race in 2011, he underwent back surgery. The operation prevented him from doing his regular exercise routine. He was a runner who couldn’t run. Lack of exercise, he once told me, affected his sleeping patterns and his stamina. There was, as one adviser put it, “a cascading effect on his energy.”
Four years ago, Perry may have thought that being governor of one of the biggest states in the country was ample preparation to run for president. He learned it wasn’t. Now he is going to school to get ready for 2016. Under the direction of his new top adviser, Jeff Miller, Perry has gone through a series of briefings on domestic and foreign policy issues. If he seemed light on the issues in his first campaign, he is working to prevent that from being a deficiency again.
All of that is on the plus side. Much that is visible suggests that Perry has applied the lessons of the first campaign as he looks toward a possible second, including getting healthy, starting early, doing his homework and engaging with the media.
Still, there are big questions about a second Perry presidential run. The governor is good at what Paul Burka of Texas Monthly calls “the theatrics of politics.” Whether he is ready for the intellectual rough-and-tumble of a real run — as opposed to this long exhibition season that he and other prospective candidates are going through — won’t be known until an actual campaign begins.
Dowd said Perry must find a way to rebuild trust with the Republican voters he disappointed with his performance in the first campaign. “Voters don’t like to get burned twice,” he said. Perry’s margin for error is slim. Republicans want to nominate a winner in 2016, and he must prove that he has the capacity to be a good candidate on a consistent basis. “He has to run an almost flawless campaign to overcome that,” Dowd said.
Perry has not been gaffe-free these past few months. He slipped earlier in the summer when he compared being gay to being an alcoholic and had to backpedal quickly. Ultimately, he tried to turn on those who were questioning him about it by suggesting that people should be focused on bigger issues such as jobs. The mistake caught the eye of Republican strategists, who believe that if it had happened in a debate or in the middle of the campaign, the damage could have been severe.
Then there is the indictment. Perry has won the opening round in the public relations battle over the charges. A number of Republican strategists — and some Democrats — see the indictment as flimsy. They think Perry will triumph in the end and emerge stronger with GOP voters.
Others in Texas assume the prosecutor would not have indicted a sitting governor without having a case. Whatever his public comments, Perry appears to be taking the indictment seriously enough to have assembled a blue-chip legal and communications team that includes some of the most experienced talent in crisis management from both parties.
The race for the Republican presidential nomination is wide open. Perry would face competition from many others, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.). The governor is taking steps to put himself in a position to compete more effectively this time. But until he enters the race, neither he nor voters will know whether he is truly ready to be president.