AUSTIN — This week marked the end of a legislative season in which Texas Gov. Rick Perry got pretty much everything he wanted — especially if what he wanted were talking points for a Republican presidential campaign.
The Texas legislature passed a fiscally austere budget that left $6 billion in the state’s rainy-day fund, and bills requiring women seeking abortions to get sonograms, voters to show photo identification and plaintiffs who bring lawsuits deemed frivolous to pay court costs and attorney fees.
Even where he was defeated, Perry won points from conservatives for putting up a fight. He tried to ban “sanctuary cities” where police are not allowed to question the immigration status of people they detain. And he forced the lawmakers to vote on an “anti-groping” bill that could have put Transportation Security Administration agents in prison if they do intrusive pat-downs.
Yet as the Texas House was staggering over the finish line Wednesday morning after 170 days of legislating, the governor who had pushed them so hard was not even in the state. He was in California for several days of speechmaking and schmoozing with activists, elected officials and business leaders.
Perry, who declined a request for an interview, is expected to decide within the next few weeks whether to jump into the race for the 2012 GOP nomination. Many here are betting that he will.
“He has shown every indication he is serious about running,” said Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.
If he does, it could roil a presidential field that many Republicans find lacking.
At a time when the Republican Party is being pulled between its establishment and insurgent forces, Perry has the potential to appeal to both.
He is currently the nation’s longest-serving governor, and the longest in Texas history, as well as head of the Republican Governors Association. But his brash, unapologetic conservatism also has elevated him to near-hero status among the tea party. Perry was one of the first big-name politicians to recognize the potential of the movement, headlining no fewer than three of their earliest rallies in Texas on April 15, 2009.
Still, with so many other contenders already out campaigning, there is a real question as to whether Perry has waited too long. Among the biggest factors he must consider, his advisers say, is whether he would have enough time and money to get a credible operation off the ground.
“Those are logistical and legitimate hurdles. If we can solve those, the rest of it — the politics — can take care of itself,” said political consultant Dave Carney, a longtime Perry adviser. Carney recently fled former House speaker Newt Gingrich’s foundering campaign, where he had been serving as a top strategist, and is now assisting Perry in making up his mind.
Carney said that if Perry runs, he will campaign across the map, starting in Iowa. His strategists have been checking in with officials in various states to figure out the deadlines and other requirements for getting on the ballot; meanwhile, two dozen or so of Perry’s most loyal backers — about half of them Texans — are working their contacts to figure out how much financial support could be put together quickly.
One of those doing political reconnaissance is Austin lawyer Bill Crocker, who is Texas’s national Republican committeeman and general counsel to the Republican National Committee.
What he is hearing about Perry has been “overwhelmingly positive, and from a wide spectrum across the country, from people who felt he would easily be our best campaigner,” Crocker said. “I think there are a lot of people who have been waiting on the sidelines for a really good candidate.”
As a result, Crocker said, he has no doubt the Texas governor could quickly “make up the gap” with those who are already running.
But even some of Perry’s Texas GOP colleagues have their doubts about how well he would go over in a presidential race.
With eight years of George W. Bush so recently in the past, “I don’t know if the nation’s ready for another Texan in the White House,” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, who represents the Fort Worth area. “I am, but I don’t know if the rest of the country is.”
The differences between Bush and the man who succeeded him as governor are more pronounced than the similarities in their accents would suggest. Their relationship has long been a tense one. And where Bush famously ran for president as a “compassionate conservative” and “a uniter, not a divider,” Perry would be selling himself as a hard-edged candidate who sees Washington as the enemy.
Perry’s main selling point would be the Texas economy — and the fact that nearly four out of 10 of the jobs created in this country since the recovery began have been in the Lone Star State. As of May, Texas was one of only three states (plus the District) that have rebounded to their pre-recession employment levels, according to statistics provided by the Federal Reserve Board of Dallas.
“That’s what happens with conservative leadership that is willing to take a beating from the liberal left and their friends in the media,” Perry told the Republican Leadership Conference, a gathering of activists in New Orleans, on June 18.
In fact, Texas’s relatively bright economic picture can be credited to “a combination of factors,” Dallas Federal Reserve president Richard Fisher said in an interview. “It’s a factor of both nature and women and men who made some smart decisions.”
Fisher noted that the state has been blessed by abundant natural resources, wide-open spaces and good ports. And it never experienced the mortgage crisis that others did — in some measure, because Texas in 1998 limited the amount that could be borrowed to 80 percent of the value of a property.
But he also noted that conservative policymakers have also made the Texas climate more attractive economically. It has low taxes and little regulation — both of which Perry championed as governor.
“The state attracts businesses due to its low cost of doing business and attracts people due to its relatively low tax burden and low cost of living,” Fisher said.
Others see a cloud in that silver lining.
“Americans should not aspire for America to look like Texas. We have one of the largest proportion of low-wage jobs in the country,” said F. Scott McCown, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan Austin-based institute that advocates for low- and moderate-income Texans.
Compared with most other large states, Texas also has fewer public services, lower public benefits, greater income inequality and a higher rate of medically uninsured.
In the recently ended legislative session, the state enacted the first cut to education spending since it put its school finance structure in place in 1949. The move alarmed some business leaders, who warned that it would make Texas less competitive in the international economy.
With the session over, Perry now is freer to turn his attention to the next chapter of his career. “November 2012 is not that far away, but we have time to be ready,” he told the Republican gathering in New Orleans. The question now is whether Perry thinks he has enough time to be ready himself.