Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is strongly considering a bid for president.
Spend a few days hanging out with political operatives in Austin and you'll come away with two things: A list of restaurant recommendations as long as the margarita menu at Guero's Taco Bar, and a hard time arguing that Gov. Rick Perry won't be the Republican Party's presidential nominee.
In The State Which Must Not Be Messed With, the governor's political skills are the stuff of legend, and the economic robustness over which he has presided is the subject of a steady stream of brags by his fans nationwide. Friends and foes allies alike are impressed with Perry's deft negotiation of the Tea Party and business wings of the GOP. He's a farmer's son who spent a decade building a huge political apparatus in a state so vast that its tourism office advertises that "It's like another country."
And every indication -- including Saturday’s prayer and fasting event in Houston -- suggests he's getting ready to take his Texas show on the road.
"Rick Perry is the best politician to come out of Texas since LBJ," says Jason Stanford, a Democratic political consultant who managed Perry opponent Chris Bell's gubernatorial campaign in 2006. "His abilities are probably on par with Obama's."
Although Perry's announcement is still pending as he gauges financial support from potential donors, few Texans in the know doubt that Perry will jump in. (As local writer Harvey Kronberg said, he is "not exploring a presidential run, he is assembling one.") In fact, a more common parlor game among Republicans is speculating about who may fill his shoes if he packs his cowboy boots and heads for Washington.
That's a scenario that's not hard for many Texans to imagine -- and not because they're all drinking the tequila-spiked Kool-Aid. People here are just used to seeing Rick Perry win.
Their sense of the governor's strength is particularly remarkable because the longest-serving governor in Texas history is hardly universally beloved even within his own party. The political landscape's storied division into hostile fiefdoms --Bush, Paul, Hutchison, Perry -- may well be overblown, but somehow past loyalties never go unmentioned in the statehouse halls or the bars on Congress Avenue. Although the Texas constitution makes the governor's authority fairly weak on paper, Perry has amassed remarkable power throughout his decade-long tenure, in part by appointing allies to posts throughout the state. Those in both parties who have worked against him often add that political revenge -- or at least the threat of it -- can be his weapon of choice when anyone stands in the way of his success.
Still, past enemies in Texas often shrug when asked to lay out a clean line of attack against Perry that would drive GOP primary voters en masse into the arms of a Mitt Romney or a Michele Bachmann.
The man has never lost an election, they say, and most things have already been tried.
Opponents have run against Perry's 2002 transportation plan, a system of new toll roads and railways that would have required a massive land acquisition by the state and could have increased consumer costs. They've tried to paint him as a wine-drinking career politician who has reaped a small fortune from political cronies. They've slammed him for mandating that young girls receive a cervical-cancer vaccine unless their parents opted out. And the governor became a late-night comedy laugh line when he appeared to flirt with secessionism at a Tea Party rally.
After all that, his last really close race was in 1998.
Chief Perry strategist Dave Carney, a man who has worked with Perry for over a decade, doesn't see chinks in his potential-candidate's gubernatorial armor, either. Asked what items on Perry's long record might keep him up at night as a strategist anticipating attacks by political opponents on a national scale, Carney replies bluntly. "Nothing."
Perry’s strengths: His economic record, conservatism, and luck
If and when he gets into the race, it'll be under the banner of his economic record. On Perry's watch, Texas accounted for 37 percent of the jobs created nationwide since the economic recovery began. Over the past decade -- nine years of which were under Perry's tenure -- the state surpassed New York as the nation’s second-largest economy and nipped at the heels of No. 1 California.
(Of course, not every "Help wanted" sign can be traced to Perry policies; the Lone Star State gets a big boost from its geography and oil reserves, and many of its pro-business laws date back to the Ann Richards era. But the tort reform and tax laws Perry signed into law appear to have lured new companies to the state, and -- at least so far
-- he has gained wide recognition for the state's successes, whether he deserves all the credit or not.)
In addition to whatever combination of policy brilliance and good fortune yielded "the Texas miracle," he's in good standing with must-get evangelical, pro-military, and gun rights voters who turn out heavily in GOP primaries. He's a deeply religious man who once took a rainstorm as a divine sign not to leave his family's farm for a new job as a commercial pilot. An Air Force captain who flew C-130's in the 1970s, he would be the only military veteran in the race. He famously shot a coyote while jogging -- an anecdote that signals Rick Perry is the kind of guy who carries a .380 pistol with a laser sight while he's in gym shorts. As many around the country poked fun at him as a trigger-happy Yosemite Sam, a limited edition "Coyote Special" created by the firearm's maker flew off the shelves.
He's also been lucky, a trait that has continued with the development of the 2012 field. Perry’s opening has been paved, in part, by the absence of other big names like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, as well as Newt Gingrich’s campaign implosion (which allowed Carney, who had been working for Gingrich, to return to the Perry orbit). A recent Gallup poll of Republican voters indicated that Perry would debut in second place nationally if he decided to run, beating out Tea Party-beloved Rep. Michele Bachmann and barely trailing presumed front-runner Mitt Romney.
With his ability to mobilize the conservative base (like Bachmann can) and to tap into big business interests (like Romney can), Perry would likely shake loose supporters from each potential rival's base.
"He's a Frankenstein of the best qualities of both of them," said GOP consultant and Texas native Matt Mackowiak, who worked for Perry opponent Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial contest. "That's exactly what many primary voters were looking for."
"People are looking at Michele Bachmann, and saying: 'I agree with her, but this woman kind of scares me,'" said another Texas Republican who has worked against the governor. "Those people are Rick Perry voters."
Those who have watched his campaigns do not doubt his ability to turn his theoretical support on paper into results in the diners and community centers of primary states. Supporters and detractors alike describe Perry as disciplined, driven (some say 'ruthless'), instinctive, and naturally energized by the parade of handshakes and bull@!$%# sessions
that make up a campaign.
And aides say he's prepared to stomach the ugly parts of the contest, too -- the inevitable opposition research hits, attack ads, and rhetorical brawls.
"He enjoys the engagement," Carney said of the governor's campaign style. "He enjoys the battle."
His weakness: Is the country ready for another Texas governor?
So is this man invincible in a GOP primary?
His most immediate challenge may be an inherited one. Both his current job and his gerund-abbreviatin' twang are likely to remind Americans of fellow Texan George W. Bush, a man still solely blamed by almost half of Americans for the country's current economic woes, per a June NBC/WSJ poll.
"I thought when I listened to him talk, I thought he was doing a parody of George Bush," former New Mexico Gov. (and longshot presidential candidate) Gary Johnson recently said of Perry.
While God-fearing-Texas-governor fatigue is sure to influence the race on a national scale, the comparison is less obvious to Texans. A native of tiny Paint Creek, TX (which has a school district so small that its teams play Six-man football), Perry's personal story more closely resembles Bill Clinton's than Bush's. His father was a farmer and World War II gunner; his early life was poor and more influenced by the weather in drought-plagued central Texas than by its oil reserves. He is fond of mentioning that he was an animal science major at Texas A&M, far from the Ivy Leagues that educated Bush, Romney, and Barack Obama.
But Perry's rags-to-riches biography isn't without its cloudy details. He may not be a millionaire on the scale of Romney or Jon Huntsman, but he made substantial profits off of land deals -- including transactions with close confidantes. A long list of Perry friends have gotten rich after entering the private sector. Critics frequently accuse him of cronyism and of placing his career's self-preservation ahead of all else. Perhaps the most glaring example is Perry's abrupt 2009 dismissal of the chair of a forensic panel that was investigating whether or not Cameron Todd Willingham, a man put to death under Perry's watch on charges of killing his three children in a fire, was innocent. That's the stuff of which opposition research is made.
His devotion to privatization and reform hasn't always resulted in data worthy of a proud press release. Texas’ only rival in the percentage of hourly workers who make at or below the minimum wage is Mississippi. The state ranks 43rd nationally in high school graduation. The state balanced its budget despite a multibillion-dollar shortfall earlier this year largely by instituting Spartan cuts to education and human services.
"This guy is Paul Ryan on crack," says Stanford. "Everything Paul Ryan wants to do on a national scale, Perry has already done here."
And then there's, well, Texas.
Perry leads a state that is physically larger than almost 200 countries in the world. It's 25 times the size of Romney's Massachusetts and 87 times the size of Bachmann's congressional district. It has its own pledge of allegiance. Even with its majority-minority demographics, it went for John McCain by almost 12 points in the last election. The official slogan of the Office of Economic Development and Tourism is -- this is actually true -- "Texas. It's like a whole other country."
It's a little different than the rest of the Lower 48. And that could be problematic in a general election, when the game will be to win over swing voters from the Midwest, Southwest, and Mountain West.
"His challenge is being able to move from talking about Texas 100 percent of the time -- which is his narrative -- to talking about it one percent of the time," said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin political consultant who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans in the state.
And it's still unclear whether a decade of what Perry has frequently called "the best job in the world" has completely readied him for a bitter fight for what's very likely the hardest and loneliest one.
"He has never had an effective, funded Republican voice against him in a primary race," said Harold Cook, a Democratic consultant in Texas. "And he's about to."