07.28.11

How Perry Could Win

The Texas governor has executive experience, conservative cred, success generating jobs, and pizzazz. Jill Lawrence on why he could roll over a lackluster GOP field.

The last time delegations of Republican moneymen and strategists were descending on Austin, the GOP ended up with a presidential nominee who went the distance. Twice.

History is repeating itself this month as Texas Gov. Rick Perry hosts meetings of potential supporters in preparation for what looks like a near-certain presidential run. Could he be the GOP counterpart of The One? The Other One, as it were?

The current Republican field is largely divided between people who are pitching competence and experience (ex-governors Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman) and exciting people who inspire passion (Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and former pizza magnate Herman Cain. There is little overlap, leaving an opening for someone who combines those attributes. Someone perhaps like Perry, a veteran governor who can rouse a crowd, an evangelical who is unabashedly religious, a fiscal conservative whose state has generated nearly half of all new jobs in the country in the last two years.

Though he’s still on the sidelines, Perry has a high “positive intensity rating” among Republicans who know him, second only to Cain. He’s already doing well enough in polls to impress some handicappers as a likely finalist for the nomination. Perry is expected to make a decision in August.

Late entrants rarely live up to their advance billing, as anticipation gives way to the reality of a Fred Thompson or, so far this year, a Huntsman. But many of the party VIPs making pilgrimages to Austin see Perry as different.

“I would say he’s a game-changer,” says Barry Wynn, a veteran fundraiser and former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. Wynn, who attended a meeting with Perry in Austin last week, says he is charismatic and has “a remarkable record of creating jobs.” Perry has also proven he can raise money, Wynn told me, and “there is a perception that he can win”—not just the nomination but the White House.

Perry, who raised $40 million for his 2010 campaign, has been adamant about not launching a White House bid unless he can generate the resources to sustain it. Outlook good, as the Magic 8-Ball would say. Wynn is personally keeping his options open until September, but he says 90 percent of the two dozen fundraisers at his meeting with Perry last week “jumped aboard” right then and there. More money people from around the country were headed to Austin for a similar meeting Thursday. Next week, a delegation of leading New Hampshire Republicans is due in Texas to encourage Perry to run.

David Carney, Perry’s chief strategist, declined to discuss who is coming to see Perry. “We have meetings every day,” he said. “We’re fully engaged to try to figure this out. It’s not a public process.” Carney did say that some of the meetings include supporters of other candidates in the race. It is an opportunity for them to visit with Perry and find out more about him. “There are no pledge sheets,” Carney said. “We’re not asking them for a commitment.”

The most grassroots activity on Perry’s behalf appears to be in Iowa, where an independent “527” committee (tax-exempt fundraising group) is trying to raise his profile. Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, says he ran into Perry committee representatives at an ice cream social at the Adair County Fair on Sunday near Des Moines, and again at a fundraiser Tuesday night in Osceola County, in northwest Iowa near the Minnesota border.

Scheffler says Perry called him three weeks ago “and indicated he was thinking about it very, very seriously.” He’d be shocked if Perry doesn’t run, given the lack of a true frontrunner in the caucuses that open the primary season, says Scheffler. “He’s the one who could potentially mix the race up.”

He’s already doing well enough in polls to impress some handicappers as a likely finalist for the nomination.

If he gets in, Perry will have to play catch-up on national fundraising and organizing, and take crash courses in areas like foreign policy. “He’s certainly a smart man and I don’t doubt that he would do his homework,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas. “But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be a complete neophyte and to not have national campaign experience.”

A general election could be complicated. What would independents make of Perry? Would his Christian conservatism alienate them? Would his record—lots of jobs, tight rein on spending—appeal to them? What would moderates make of a governor who cut $4 billion in education this year to balance his budget, and a state where a quarter of children are born into poverty and the percentage of people without health insurance is the highest in the country?

Then there’s the ghost of George W. Bush. Perry is the son of a cotton farmer and a graduate of Texas A&M. But with his cowboy boots, dropped g’s and Texas swagger, he can’t help but bring Bush to mind. In Texas, there’s already the start of a cottage industry warning interlopers like Yankees and national reporters that they are different—Perry being more conservative, more partisan, less country-club and zero Ivy League. He’s also far more overtly religious, even sponsoring “The Response”—a prayer rally coming up Aug. 6 in Houston. “There is hope for America. It lies in heaven, and we will find it on our knees,” Perry says in an invitation to governors and other Americans.

All of that, of course, is catnip to many GOP primary voters, as is Perry’s record on almost every issue important to them. Just this year, as he often says, he has signed such laws as a “loser pays” measure to reduce frivolous lawsuits; new tools to convict and punish human traffickers; more money for border security; stronger protections for property owners; voter identification requirements; and a law requiring anyone seeking an abortion to have a sonogram—“ensuring that she has all the facts in understanding the full impact of the life-altering decision she’s making.”

You have to feel for Romney and Pawlenty, who dealt with Democrats and liberals in their respective states of Massachusetts and Minnesota. You have to especially feel for Romney, who can’t even run on his monumental achievement—a health reform law that’s left only 1 to 2 percent of his state uninsured, the lowest percentage in the nation, for what it’s worth, and quite a contrast to Texas.

Perry previewed a stump speech in June at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, and he was in his comfort zone. He topped it off by asking the audience to text-message the word “forward” to 95613. “Go ahead, I’ll wait,” he said, as hundreds of people added themselves to his email list as potential donors and volunteers. “We’re going to keep you apprised of what we’re doing,” he said. Their chants of “Run Rick Run” made it clear what they want him to do.