Less than four months before the first GOP nominating contests are expected to begin, the narrative of the 2012 presidential primary is shaping up to sound something like this: Texas Gov. Rick Perry will pit his unapologetic anti-establishment rhetoric against Mitt Romney's discipline, network of political professionals, and appeal to a broad general electorate.
While the GOP contest might not be that clear-cut in reality -- and the race is sure to see more twists and turns ahead -- that's still a metaphorical shootout that Perry would like to have.
After all, he won a similar fight two years ago without appearing to break a sweat at the end. And it's a playbook he might rely on more heavily after a series of tough debate performances, as well as his upset loss at the Florida Straw Poll.
Perry's 2010 gubernatorial primary contest against Kay Bailey Hutchison should have been a nail-biter. By many accounts the most popular politician in Texas, Hutchison was known as a competent fighter for the state's interest, and she had the backing of Karl Rove and other establishment Republicans. And after winning only 39% of the vote in his 2006 re-election as Texas governor, Perry was facing lower approval ratings and grumblings about his decision to run for a third term.
But Perry, a cotton farmer turned politician, sensed a change in the weather.
On Tax Day 2009 -- as most D.C. Republicans were warily eying "Tea Party" groups and gingerly testing what looked like cracks in the Republican Party's foundations -- Perry was donning a bomber jacket and taking the stage at a rally of those frustrated Texans.
"I'm just not real sure you're a bunch of right-wing extremists," Perry bellowed to activists in Austin. "But if you are, we're with you."
The Tea Party crowd erupted in cheers:
April 16: Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses a tax day "tea party," telling the audience that Washington is overturning their rights, and ignoring limits on federal power.
After the same event, Perry suggested to reporters that Texas could secede from the union if Washington “continues to thumb their nose at the American people.”
The anti-Washington wave wouldn't crash nationwide for another 19 months on Election Day, but with those statements, Perry positioned himself at its head.
“That was the tipping point in the race” said Southern Methodist University political science professor Calvin Jillson. “Perry understood that there was a change taking place in public perception of government."
Branding “Washington Kay”
At the same time, Perry's team was discovering that Hutchison's support was more shallow than it seemed -- especially among those in the new movement Perry was riding.
"Kay was casually well-liked," said Perry pollster Mike Baselice. "She hadn't had a real challenge since her special election. A lot of people just said, 'Oh yeah, Kay's great.’ But as soon as you explained her record to Republican primary voters, they took off and ran the other way. They had no idea."
Team Perry set out to make sure those voters got an idea.
Texans soon started hearing their senior senator dubbed "Kay Bailout" to underscore her support of the unpopular TARP bill. Perry's opposition research website lived atwww.WashingtonKay.com. Hutchison’s record on earmarks -- in earlier times viewed as a quantitative record of a lawmaker's willingness to fight for federal resources for the state –- became one of her greatest liabilities.
"Every time they talked about her, they talked about her in the context of Washington," said former Hutchison staffer Matt Mackowiak. "Votes, earmarks, lobbyists, PAC fundraisers. They talked about 'career politician and Virginia resident Kay Bailey Hutchison.' They could get about seven insults in seven words there."
Perry also ran relentlessly to Hutchison’s right on social issues -- in particular, hammering her on her more moderate position on abortion. As Hutchison pleaded for primary voters to see that her rival “talks like a conservative, but governs like a liberal,” her support continued to collapse.
The effectiveness of Perry’s message -- and the discipline with which he and his team executed it -- left his opponent dazed. Days before Perry thundered to a 20-point victory in the March 2 primary, a stunned Hutchison told the Associated Press she never thought Texans “would buy” her competitor’s tactic.
“I didn’t think that anyone could turn my success in producing results for Texas into a negative,” she lamented. “But I think that he has attempted to do that and that is what I’ve been having to fight against.”
Parallels to the present
Just as Hutchison tried to paint herself as the reasonable, measured alternative to a governor whom even some allies teasingly refer to as “Yosemite Sam,” Perry’s main 2012 rival was quick to make the argument that the Tea Party favorite’s policy positions are too extreme to win over voters in a general election.
Romney, himself a former presidential candidate and the son of a three-term governor and onetime White House hopeful, is -- as Hutchison was -- more the favorite of the “establishment” Republicans publicly reviled by Perry.
Specifically citing Perry’s tough talk on Social Security, Romney said earlier this month that Republicans “will be obliterated as a party” if they choose Perry as their nominee. (That sentiment is echoed by Rove -- the same GOP strategist who backed Hutchison in 2010 -- who now calls Perry’s position on Social Security “toxic” to the GOP. )
Romney also has stressed that he's the more electable Republican. "I’m going to be a Republican candidate who can win," he said last week. "I say that with significance."
Perry, a Texas A&M graduate who is careful to point out that he wasn’t “born with four aces in my hand,” has responded by needling the kind of “established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory.”
That’s a familiar-sounding line from a candidate who once praised outsider queen Sarah Palin for making liberals and D.C. media elites “foam at the mouth.”
Perry’s gleeful blasting of the Beltway during the GOP primary is undoubtedly resonating with voters, who have vaulted him to the top of national polls. But it is less clear that his anti-Washington playbook from 2010 will be as effective against a GOP rival who has never held federal elected office.
“It’s a problem for Perry,” said one Republican operative who declined to be named because of employment by a group that will not endorse in the race. “Romney may have some allies and fundraisers in Washington, but that doesn't connect to voters in Iowa. They don't know who those people are.”
And Romney, an energetic candidate with a deep-pocketed team of opposition researchers, might be better equipped than Hutchison was to deconstruct Perry’s popularity with Republicans in his idiosyncratic home state.
“The campaign that Perry’s running right now is the campaign that has served him very well in Texas,” Jillson says. “But it’s an open question as to whether it translates to the national level.”