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Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the potential to shake up the Republican presidential contest and would enter the race as a probable national frontrunner. But just two years ago, Perry couldn't even count on the Lone Star State to grant him another term as governor.
There was a widely held prediction that he would retire instead of seek a third term in 2010 because Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison could handily beat him in the GOP primary.
Perry possesses a keen political acumen that has seen him through several tough races during his 26-year career. He is attractive, well-liked, has a talent for retail politicking and is knowledgeable on policy matters. But Perry spent his first few years as governor in the shadow of his popular predecessor, then-newly elected President George W. Bush. After he took office in late 2000, Perry had a reputation as a politically motivated, uninspiring leader.
"He was not disliked," said Royal Masset, a retired Texas GOP political operative who lives in Austin. "But he was not perceived as a strong leader. He was seen as a figurehead, as most Texas governors have been."
The governor sowed the seeds of his eventual rise beginning in 2005, Texas Republicans say, when he was viewed as acting decisively to help the Gulf Coast recover from Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, as he managed the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, which blew through Houston and greater southeast Texas, Perry's leadership stood in stark contrast to what many Texans had witnessed in Louisiana, GOP operatives say.
But it is President Barack Obama, the man Perry would face in the 2012 general election should he win the Republican nod — and the subsequent rise of the tea party — who is credited more than anything else with shaping the governor's recent political stardom.
"There is no doubt that the election and ascendancy of Barack Obama sparked in Rick Perry a new sense of public purpose," said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of the conservative advocacy group Empower Texans and a strong Perry supporter. "The clarity of the opposition increased the clarity of his efforts."
Perry's conservatism has rarely been questioned, although he did endorse former New York mayor and moderate Republican Rudy Giuliani for president in 2008. Yet it was his staunch and vocal opposition to Obama's agenda, beginning soon after the president was inaugurated in 2009, that shone a spotlight on the Lone Star State. Perry railed against the administration's more than $800 billion economic stimulus package, Obama's health care law and proposals for climate change regulation.
Democrats think Perry could be a formidable Obama challenger, but they plan to highlight his most controversial positions should he run.
At the top of the list is Perry's talk in April 2009 of seceding from the Union. He later walked back the statement but not his criticism of Washington, D.C., overreach.
The governor's message was a perfect fit for a conservative-leaning state with a strong libertarian streak. Texas has no state income tax, counts the energy industry as among its biggest economic drivers, has a part-time Legislature and has among the weakest governorships of any state in the nation. But it also fit Perry, whose long-held conservative populism was finally given a prominent voice — and a hungry audience — in a then-burgeoning movement that would become the tea party.
These factors helped him score an easy victory over Hutchison and a third candidate in that 2010 gubernatorial primary. Perry did not even need a runoff to secure renomination.
"It's probably one of the most remarkable political transformations I've seen," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. "He's got good political instincts, and he's good on the stump — and he's adjusted to the new normal of Republican politics."
Perry, 61, was an elected Democrat until 1989 and has never lost a race.
In 1988, while still a state legislator, he served as chairman of then-Sen. Al Gore's (D-Tenn.) presidential primary campaign in Texas. Running as a Republican in 1990, he narrowly defeated incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower (D) for his first statewide victory, even as Ann Richards won the gubernatorial race for the Democrats. In 1998, Perry won an open seat for lieutenant governor — considered the most powerful elected position in Texas — by less than 2 points.
Perry aides reject suggestions that the governor has only recently found his footing as a leader. Spokesman Mark Miner noted that while Perry has received more national attention since 2009, he has fought for the same conservative principles throughout his career. In fact, Republicans who have followed him say his switch from the Democratic Party was not one of convenience because it was unclear in 1989 that the GOP was poised to dominate Texas electoral politics.
David Carney, one of Perry's chief political advisers, said in telephone interview that the governor intends to make a decision on whether to run for president before Labor Day. Carney said the Perry team is preparing to ramp up a national campaign in about six weeks, as opposed to the several months of planning that usually goes into such an effort. He said the governor is gathering data to determine whether he can run an effective campaign.
"We're not going to keep people on the edge of their seats. Our bias is to do this quicker, rather than waiting," Carney said, adding that Perry does not want to keep supporters in limbo any longer than he has to. "We're not just looking to launch in a few states and hope for the best. It would be a national effort."
Perry, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, won his first full term as governor in 2002 and spent the next six years embroiled in a series of political challenges, beginning with the toxic effort in 2003 to redraw Texas Congressional districts mid-decade. A fight with teachers over public school funding occurred in 2006.
The Texas Supreme Court had ruled that the state's method of financing public schools was unconstitutional, and Perry was forced to work with the Legislature to develop a new tax scheme to fund education. Just the fact that Perry was involved in this issue was enough to weigh him down in anti-tax Texas, even though he never advocated tax increases. In 2007, he angered social conservatives when he backed mandatory vaccinations of teenage girls for the human papilloma virus, although he supported a parental opt out.
Bush's popularity tanked over the course of 2005 and 2006, hurting the GOP politically in the process, and Perry wasn't immune. Perhaps at his lowest point ever with voters, Perry won re-election in 2006 with just 39 percent of the vote against five general election opponents, including the Republican-turned- Independent Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. One Republican operative based in Texas said Perry's problems were compounded by being unexciting and contended that Perry's charisma was only recently acquired.
"His speaking style has really improved," the operative said. "He was Bush-ian when he first started — almost worse than Bush."