Perry: A Presidential Profile
A “humble beginning” always makes for a good story when running for elected office, especially for a presidential candidate. Governor Rick Perry has that: a lonely child of hard-working, hard scrabble parents from the “middle of nowhere” West Texas crossroad town of Paint Creek.
But for our purposes, let’s start at the humble beginning of his political life. Specifically 1989, right after he switched from conservative Democrat to conservative Republican. And he jumped into the race for agriculture commissioner against incumbent Democrat Jim Hightower.
Back in the fall of 1989, Austin American-Statesman reporter Gardner Selby was a newly hired reporter at the Dallas Times Herald.
“My assignment was to go over to the Capitol and pin this guy down,” he says.
Rick Perry was just a state Representative with a very small office in the old basement of the Capitol.
“I figured out by looking in the directories where the office used to be,” Selby said as he walked through the Capitol, reminiscing.
“We’re walking past the men’s room here on the ground floor, just on the East wing. And just a little farther down there was a hallway. I’m going to guess the hallway was right about here,” Selby said, indicating to a door.
“GW.5 that’s a hallway that lead – just a couple of steps down and to the left to Governor Perry’s or then Representative Perry’s office which was G.55C,” he said.
But there is no “Perry Stayed Here” plaque on the wall, at least not yet.
Lots will be made of the fact that a Republican Presidential candidate used to be a Democrat. But political operative Reggie Basher says it’s really just Texas political semantics. Basher has worked with dozens of top tier Republican officeholders during his time in Texas, including George W. Bush and Rick Perry.
“I think at the time, conservative Democrats may have been more conservative then the Republicans in the 80s,” Basher said.
Democrat was the only political flavor available in Texas for decades. Before the 80s, the vast majority of Texans, including Rick Perry, grew up with moms and dads who voted for Democrats. By default, that made them Democrats too.
But it didn’t take long for the new Republican to rise to the top of the party. After two terms as Ag Commissioner and half a term as Lt. Governor, Perry moved into the Texas White House when George W. Bush left for the one in Washington.
Through three successful re-election bids, Perry’s ability to define campaign messages and get people to the polls has been on display.
“He’s got a tremendous personality. He likes people. He can talk to an individual one on one,” Basher said. “He gives a good speech. He carries a strong message, and that’s all proven by his success that he’s had, never losing an election.”
A history of success to be sure. But can the governor see the same kind of success using his tested-in-Texas platform across the country? Even in those states that don’t have a GOP majority?
Will his record on the death penalty hurt him in states where there is no capital punishment? What about being governor in a state that bans gay marriage? And how will his participation in his day-long prayer event called “The Response” affect his image among non-Christian or even non-evangelical voters?
In the midst of what some consider to be far right political stances, the Governor may actually have an advantage in one of his more moderate policy approaches.
Edinburg state representative, Republican Aaron Pena, is one of five Hispanics in the Texas House. He says Perry’s immigration stance sends the kind of signal Hispanics want to see from a Republican party that can occasionally appear, to some, to go a little too far to the right on the issue.
“We have to have commerce with Mexico but we have to have stability,” he said. “We have to encourage the rule of law in Mexico while at the same time not being anti-Mexican. Governor Perry has done a very good job in this session and prior sessions of being somebody who understands that.”
So how does all this add up for Perry’s pursuit of the GOP nomination? The run-up to this announcement has been paved with mostly positive stories about the governor’s chances of winning in what some consider to be a weak Republican field.
“Because this race has started so slowly, there is room for Rick Perry to jump right in,” said Reid Wilson, editor and chief of the National Journal’s “Hotline” blog.
The Washington D.C. publication ranked Perry thirdin their Presidential “power rankings” way back in June. Even without an official candidacy, Perry trailed only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. More recent polls show Perry running in second, or even in a virtual dead-heat with Romney.
“He is the only person in the country I think, who has run an effective primary campaign with a Tea Party based strategy in a way that can really appeal to the Republican party these days,” Wilson said.
Wilson says the new incarnation of the Republican Party, with Tea Party support, has fundamentally changed the way the GOP views its candidates. And he says Perry is way ahead of that curve.
Now all that’s fine and good in a GOP primary, but what about a run against President Obama? Wilson says the governor’s strong pro-business message can be a winner if the sluggish economy persists.
“The difference is the election is not today,” Wilson said. “The election is in November of 2012. The economy is likely to improve by November of 2012. If voters believe that’s because President Obama’s actions have propelled the economy in the right direction, well then President Obama is going to be very difficult to beat no matter who he’s running against. But Rick Perry, at the moment, has a really strong contrast.”
But Republican campaigner Reggie Basher says even if the economy strengthens, don’t ever count Rick Perry out.
“He’s proven himself to be a very strong candidate for whatever office he ran. And whether he started out ahead or behind he was able to prevail,” he said.
Which brings us back to where it all started — the basement of the Texas Capitol — just outside what once was Perry’s office. The Statesman‘s Gardner Selby says nothing about his interview with the newly minted Republican 22-years ago stands out as being memorable…much less, presidential.
“I do remember that he didn’t tell me anything,” Selby said. “I remember that best I could, and I was a fairly green reporter then too, but any way I phrased the question he was uh…I wouldn’t say “aw shucks” but he was drawling his answers back to me as if they were an echo of my question. And I can’t even remember if I typed a story out of it.”
Selby didn’t even save the tape from the interview. But then why would you for an underdog candidate running for a minor state office.
You can bet reporters are guarding their old Perry tapes closely now, and listening back for insight on what promises to be one of the most compelling candidacies since…well, since the last time a Texas governor made a run for the nation’s highest office.