There’s a sort of collective disbelief within the Texas political establishment about Gov. Rick Perry testing the uncertain waters of a presidential campaign.
Here’s a guy, once derided as “Governor Goodhair,” whose central claim to fame used to be that he was the politician who followed George W. Bush into the Texas governor’s office. This is the candidate who limped to re-election in 2006 with 39 percent of the vote. Today, even a poll in Perry’s own Texas shows he’s barely a blip on anybody’s White House radar, running behind well-established declared GOP candidates like Mitt Romney and even fellow Texan Ron Paul.
Perry doesn’t have an exploratory committee, nor a single federal dollar raised. There are no campaign volunteers, no structure — nothing — in first-test Iowa or anywhere else.
But if his critics have learned nothing else about Perry, they should know this: Underestimate him at your peril. He’s never lost an election, and in his last primary, he came back from a 20-point deficit in surveys to beat U.S. Sen. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison by the same amount. Absent a career-ending scandal, 40-point swings are not common.
“His political opponents spend a lot of time bending over backwards to portray him as just lucky,” said Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas and is co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune poll. “People have to give that up. … That undervalues how politically astute he and his team have been.”
Perry isn’t anywhere near declared-candidate status. But after months of insisting that he won’t run for president under any circumstances, Perry threw open the door last week when he said he would “think about it” after lawmakers finish their work in the state Capitol (even though he has at least four out-of-state trips planned in the next three weeks).
As it turns out, the session did not end on Monday as Team Perry had hoped. Instead it’s going into overtime in a special session with no clear end in sight. Technically it can last for up to 30 days, but the governor can call an infinite number of them if the work doesn’t get done. If the session(s) drag on and becomes controversial, Perry could suffer politically, and Democrats are already saying the governor is too obsessed with the White House to focus on Texas.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who blew up the regularly scheduled legislative session with a filibuster this week, told reporters Perry was pushing steep budget cuts in Texas as a way of bolstering his conservative credentials ahead of a presidential run. Republicans, with Perry’s blessing, have voted to take $4 billion out of the public education system, which would be the first such reduction since the modern school finance system was set up in 1949.
“He’s using these issues, these politically charged partisan issues which will help him probably in his presidential desires," Davis said, "but unfortunately he’s using them to play against what we’re trying to do on behalf of the school children."
While the new special session brings unpredictable risks, it also lets Perry continue to play this tease game — staying engaged in the fight for conservative causes but not able to confirm or deny any broader ambition until it’s really over. In the meantime, supporters, critics and pundits are all sizing up whether the longest-serving governor in the U.S. has a realistic shot of capturing the Republican nomination and — yes, Virginia — the White House.
“He’s held a major office, he actually has credentials to run,” said Larry Sabato, political analyst at the University of Virginia. “He would be in the major-contender category.”
Sabato said general election voters might have heartburn over another Texas governor running for president so soon after Bush. And, too, this Texas governor is so out there, so willing to flirt around the margins of what’s deemed politically acceptable. Exhibit A is Perry’s suggestion that Texans might just secede from the U.S. if they get too fed up with an over-encroaching federal government.
Yet, Sabato said, it’s just the kind of red meat, no-apologies conservatism that Tea Party activists are looking for. And Republicans don’t care right now if the person they nominate seems to be on the outer edges of the political mainstream.
“Perry is just what they want," Sabato said. "Are they thinking about the general election? Not really."
A major question that looms is whether Perry could stand up to the unparalleled scrutiny of a presidential campaign. If this moves beyond flirtation into a real date with the American voting public, the media will comb over his record, over land deals, controversies with donors and perhaps a few things that nobody knows about yet.
It doesn’t take much to crash and burn.
“He’s never been vetted in a real way,” said Matthew Dowd, Bush’s former pollster. “With the spotlight of the national press and all of the stuff that goes on, you have to go through that gantlet. You never know the answer to that until somebody goes through it.”
Dowd said a Perry campaign should be taken seriously. He said the field is so weak, the conservative hunger so great, that Perry could overcome the lack of formal campaign structure in a hurry. Whether he could go the distance in a general campaign — who really knows at this point?
“It totally depends on where the president’s approval numbers are and the state of the economy, which are interrelated,” Dowd said. “If those are both bad, then basically nearly any Republican will win. If those are both good it doesn’t matter which Republican is nominated, they’ll lose.”
For the record, Perry is still sticking to his latest mantra, which is a lot different from the old I’m-not-running-no-matter-what-mantra.
“Talk to me after the session is over,” he told reporters Tuesday.
But don’t expect the speculation to subside. Perry has at least four out-of-state trips planned in June. On the 12th, he’s heading to Los Angeles for an anti-abortion event featuring prominent Hispanic leaders. Two days later he’ll be in New York for the annual Lincoln Day Dinnersponsored by the New York Republican County Committee. The original keynote speaker was the now bowed-out presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Then he’s off to North Carolina for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association, which Perry chairs, and on June 18 he'll speak to the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans. That’s at least four trips in six days.
At some point, relatively soon, Perry will have to get past all this coy seduction and reveal his true intentions.
“Republicans are very impatient. This has been the big tease,” Sabato said. “They want a real campaign with real candidates, not ghost candidates.”