The biggest guessing game in Republican politics today is what kind of presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry would be. Is he a heavyweight ready to contend seriously for the nomination, or someone who stumbles when he steps onto the big stage?
His prospective candidacy looms large over the GOP race. Without much effort on his part, other than a few strategic appearances and a powerful echo chamber, Perry is already being cast as the most likely candidate to challenge Mitt Romney’s standing as the front-runner for the party’s nomination.
If that’s the case, Mark McKinnon, who was a top adviser to President George W. Bush, has a warning for the former Massachusetts governor. “I think he will put Romney in the microwave and turn it up to high,” he said. “Romney’s been avoiding the heat so far, but not when Perry gets in.”
That is the most colorful way of saying what a number of Texans who have watched Perry closely over the years agree on, which is that he has proved to be a skilled and disciplined candidate with an instinct for where the base of his party stands and a style on the stump that is as aggressive as it is conservative.
Paul Burka, the veteran political writer for Texas Monthly, recently wrote an article called “Dear Yankee.” It was a plea for all the Northern reporters from national publications who will be making the pilgrimage to Austin not to deal in old and foolish stereotypes in assessing Perry — or Texas.
Burka, who has come to understand Perry’s strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone in the state, had much to say of value. Among other things, he noted that the governor with the big head of hair should not be dismissed as a “soft or feckless” pretty boy, as if he were a Republican version of the Democratic Breck Boy, John Edwards.
“Perry is a hard man,” Burka wrote. “He is the kind of politician who would rather be feared than loved — or respected. And he has gotten his wish. Perry does not have many friends in the [Texas] Legislature.”
Asked what non-Texans may understand least about Perry, McKinnon said: “What they don’t know is that he’s probably much more tested than people think. He’s been through some very, very tough campaigns. He’s pretty battle-tested. The national scene is a different deal, but he is a vigorous, aggressive, disciplined campaigner — and knuckles-out.”
He has never lost an election and as a Republican he has never hugged the center — a potential problem in a general election but not in the primary of the current Republican Party. Instead he has developed near-perfect pitch with the party’s conservative base. He has what another Texan calls “an instinctual read” on the Republican Party, something few people say about Romney.
Perry sounded the tea party’s bugle even before most people understood what a force that movement would become within the Republican Party. When he talked about secession back in 2009, Democrats saw it as a blunder by a lightweight. But it resonated with conservatives fed up with Washington.
There is wide agreement in Texas political circles that it was his instinct for where the party was moving at the time, along with his attack politics, that made it possible for him to demolish Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in their 2010 gubernatorial primary, a race that only a year earlier appeared to be hers to lose.
“He obliterated her with his anti-Washington message,” said Matthew Dowd, who was a top adviser in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns. “He’s honed that, and that’s going to be a big part of who wins the Republican race.”
Many people may wonder whether the country, or the Republican Party, is ready for another Texan. Those who know Perry, however, say that he is not George W. Bush. It’s well known that there is little love between the Bush and Perry camps, but personal relationships aside, the two have approached governing in the Lone Star State with divergent styles.
“Bush by nature, in Texas, wanted to be a conciliator,” said one Texas strategist, who requested anonymity to give a candid assessment of Perry. “I think he wanted to be somewhat bipartisan. I don’t think Perry’s particularly interested in those things. I don’t think he’s afraid to be partisan. I don’t think he’s afraid to be tough and mean when he has to.”
After switching parties in the late 1980s, Perry decided to move hard to the right, doing what he could to outflank conventional Republicans almost from Day One. That conservatism, say other Texans, is real and deeply ingrained.
Perry’s conservatism is not of the compassionate kind that ushered Bush onto the national stage in the 2000 campaign. When he’s been asked the impact of Texas’s low-tax, low-service environment on the poor, he’s dismissed the question by saying that if people want a heavy hand of government, they should look to California or New York for inspiration.
His appearance at the prayer service in Houston on Saturday shows his capacity to speak authentically to religious conservatives. His anti-Washington message resonates with tea party activists. The Texas economy gives him a record to talk about that will play well with the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party.
For all that, there are still questions that surround his likely candidacy. He has the discipline, but does he have the stamina for a long campaign? He has been examined by Democrats and the Texas media but will undergo a vetting unlike anything he’s seen in the past. How will he react to the inevitable stories critical of him, his record, his policies, his exercise of power and his connections?
Perry makes a strong first impression. He knows his message and sticks to it — and sticks to it and sticks to it and sticks to it. That can be an asset or, if it appears he doesn’t have answers beyond his main message, a potential liability.
What he will be like in debates and on the Sunday shows is another question. He avoided debates in the last campaign and also declined to sit for interviews with editorial boards, saying he knew he wasn’t going to get their endorsements so it wasn’t worth bothering. If he gets into the race later this month, he’ll face three debates in September alone.
Burka and others point to another characteristic: Perry has been lucky. “If you look at Perry’s career,” he wrote, “it seems that fate is always arranging the universe so that its favorite son will be in the right place at the right time.”
Is this another time? Or by sometime this fall, will Rick Perry be remembered as some of his Texas predecessors, John Connally and Phil Gramm among them, as a candidate who came into the race with high expectations but who never found his footing or his audience? Texans say Perry has been underestimated many times. But he’s never faced what will await him if he does jump in.