Rick Perry: Republican Savior or GOP Disaster?

by Stuart Rothenberg June 22, 2011 · 11:22 AM EDT

The buzz about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s possible entrance into the presidential race grows, but the Republican’s cheerleaders ought to tread carefully when it comes to a Perry candidacy — very carefully.

Perry, 61, surely would be a serious contender for the GOP nomination, at least initially. He looks the part of a politician (even down to his hair) and has the kind of résumé that immediately credentials him for the role of president.

After a stint in the Texas House, he served as agriculture commissioner and then lieutenant governor before assuming the state’s top elective office when George W. Bush resigned to prepare to be inaugurated president.

Perry has since been elected governor three times: in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

The governor has proved his political mettle, easily turning back allegedly strong Democratic challengers in 2002 (wealthy businessman Tony Sanchez, who led a Democratic “dream team”) and in 2010 (former Houston Mayor Bill White) and narrowly winning a multi-candidate general election in 2006, when Republican officeholder Carole Keeton Strayhorn and celebrity Richard “Kinky” Friedman ran as Independents and fractured the electorate.

But Perry’s greatest triumph might have been his utter destruction of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary.

Hutchison, backed by former Bush strategist Karl Rove and his allies, led Perry by more than 20 points in some early polling, and even a May 2009 poll for Perry found the governor down by 6 points. But by the time election night rolled around, Perry had tied Hutchison to Washington, D.C., and he crushed her by more than 20 points.

Insiders agree the current animosity in Texas between the Bush and Perry forces is real and dates back to 1998, when Perry was running for lieutenant governor and then-Gov. Bush needed him to win so that a Democrat would not succeed Bush if he won the presidency in 2000.

Fearing Perry was headed for a loss, his team wanted to “go nuclear,” to quote one well-versed insider, against Democrat John Sharp, while Bush strategists opposed the tactic as far too risky. Bush operatives ultimately won the argument, and Perry won that race very narrowly. Still, the disagreement created considerable resentment, which still lingers.

Campaigning is Perry’s greatest strength.

“He’s a terrific campaigner. He’s great at seeing where conservatives are and forming a populist message that appeals to them. And he has great message discipline. If you give him a message-of-the-day, he always figures out how to stay on it,” said one Texan who has watched him close-up. His fundraising abilities are somewhat less certain because he has never raised funds under federal limits.

Except for one glaring exception, the governor has spent years criticizing government, bashing Washington, D.C. — even suggesting secession was an option for his state — and pushing a conservative agenda. He has obvious appeal with tea party activists and all stripes of conservatives in his party.

The exception involves his 2007 executive order requiring all Texas girls entering sixth grade to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus, which can cause cancer. The move was decried by many civil libertarians and social conservatives alike.

Given that record, some observers stress his positioning given the current field.

“Perry potentially could combine support from the tea party crowd with support from those who prefer a governor/CEO candidate,” says Republican consultant Curt Anderson of OnMessage Inc. “He’s the only candidate who could appeal to both camps.”

He would seem to be the greatest threat to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a favorite of the tea party, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has tried to position himself to frontrunner Mitt Romney’s right but so far has had trouble getting traction.

Moreover, a Perry candidacy would suck much of the oxygen out of the GOP race, destroying the already slim prospects of second- and third-tier candidates.

Others counter that Perry’s niche in the race isn’t ideological but is his ability to talk about creating jobs in Texas.

“I expect his pitch will be his economic skills,” said a Republican insider who thinks only Perry and Romney can talk effectively about job creation. “The economy is the top concern even among Republican voters, and he can talk about job growth, a friendly business environment in Texas and low taxes.”

But for all his assets, Perry’s liabilities are considerable, seriously limiting his appeal in a general election. Republican insiders are divided about how much they would damage him in a quest for his party’s nomination.

One Republican strategist doubted his Texas roots and “cowboy” persona would be problems in most caucuses and primaries, stressing that GOP voters want someone who will be aggressive against President Barack Obama and that “everything about Perry screams that he is not President Obama.”

But most GOP insiders disagree, citing his state and style as negatives for the nomination and for November.

“It’s too soon for another Texan and another cowboy. And Perry is twice the cowboy that George W. Bush ever was,” a GOP strategist said.

“Bush and Perry governed very differently,” another Texan agreed. “Perry is much more conservative and much more strident than Bush ever was.”

Most observers doubt Perry’s appeal in New Hampshire, for example, though they acknowledge that he could be a considerable force in Southern contests and that his “unbelievable” skill at retail politics could make him a real contender in Iowa.

Some observers believe that Perry’s performance in Austin will develop into an issue. Perry is great at claiming credit, asserted one Republican observer, but has been “AWOL as governor; he shows up every three years when it’s time to campaign.”

“It’s not that he is personally corrupt,” said a critic who believes that “ethics” will become a problem for the governor. “It’s that he uses big pieces of Texas government as his playpen. There is evidence of pay-to-play, for example. Hutchison had plenty of opposition research on him, but Perry ran such a superior campaign that her material didn’t get through. Once that gets out, he’ll have a hard time surviving it. And you can bet that the information will make its way to the media.”

But will Republican caucus attendees and primary voters really care? Or will they be smitten by his populist rhetoric, his contrast to Obama and his claim, supported by Politifact Texas, that Texas has created more jobs since he became governor than any other state.

While there are differences of opinion among strategists about Perry’s appeal in the GOP race, there is unanimous agreement that the Texan would be a risky general election choice for his party.

One conservative, for example, suggested that he would be strong with the party base but would have questionable appeal among independent and moderate voters.

Another said that while he (and many other Republicans) could win in a double-dip recession or with 10 percent unemployment, “Rick Perry could lose every true swing state and spawn a disaster [for his party] down ballot in Great Lakes and coastal suburbs.”

He is simply too conservative, too Texas and too cowboy in a general election, most strategists believe.

Given the weak field, his campaign skills and his relatively broad appeal to Republicans, Rick Perry is a horse to watch for the nomination. But in a general election, the GOP cowboy doesn’t now look at all like the GOP’s savior.