Perry's red-meat Texas agenda boosts a possible race for president

Fort Worth Star-TelegramJuly 2, 2011 

AUSTIN, Tex. — The just-concluded Texas legislative session has armed Gov. Rick Perry with a host of red-meat issues that could entice conservative Republican voters if he jumps into the wide-open presidential primary race.

But analysts say some of those issues could carry consequences in reaching broader constituencies in the general election match-up against President Barack Obama.

Texas' longest-serving governor burnished his conservative profile with legislative victories that included a no-tax budget with $15 billion in cuts, property rights protections, voter ID legislation and a bill requiring sonograms before abortions.

Two other Perry-backed issues — an immigration measure to ban so-called sanctuary cities and legislation to prohibit intrusive airport pat-downs — could also enhance the Texas governor's stature among conservative activists though the measures ultimately died in the Legislature.

Even without declaring, Perry is becoming an early favorite among Tea Party activists for his adherence to limited government and his verbal assaults on Washington. Sabato's Crystal Ball, an online analysis headed by much-quoted political observer Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, places Perry in the top tier of 11 announced and unannounced candidates. The Texas governor ranked number three, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

But his embrace of the voter ID and sanctuary city bills has threatened a backlash among Hispanics, who accounted for 56 percent of the nation's population growth over the past decade. Perry's push for the sonogram bill has fortified his long-standing ties to family values and pro-life groups but it has also made him a target of abortion-rights circles.

"We would aggressively work to defeat him, of course," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, which describes itself as non-partisan but typically backs Democrats. "I think the sonogram legislation is yet another example of a politician interfering with women's health care."

Austin consultant Mark McKinnon, who served as a strategist for former president George W. Bush said that the sonogram bill, voter ID and sanctuary cities legislation could be "problematic" with some groups in the general election.

"No question that some of Perry's Texas legislative accomplishments that will make him attractive to Republican primary voters will be a liability to general election voters," said McKinnon, who is vice chairman of Austin-based Public Strategies Inc.

Dave Carney, Perry's chief political consultant, said Perry will make a decision "later this summer" but doesn't have a specific time frame. The governor's strategists have been collecting data and examining fund-raising, Carney said, while Perry has made several high-profile speaking appearances that have fanned interest in his potential as a candidate. "The response has been great," Carney said, but "it's still too early to tell" if Perry will become a candidate.

Analysts in Texas and other states say Perry's strengths include his political stewardship of a large — and decidedly red _state, his much-touted record for job growth in Texas and his political skills in capitalizing on the emergence of the Tea Party movement.

Democrats are virtually certain to magnify talking points they used against Perry during the Legislature into fodder for a national campaign if Perry emerges as a nominee. While Perry and other Republicans hailed the $172.3 billion budget as a model of government restraint that avoided taxes and a serious dip into the state's Rainy Day Fund, Democrats will counter that Perry oversaw $4 billion in education cuts and slashed needed social services.

Democratic consultant Dan McClung of Houston said Perry's approach differs from that of then-Gov. Bush as he prepared to make the move from Austin into the national arena in the late 1990s . Bush sought to present himself as "a compassionate conservative" in an attempt to muster broad appeal while Perry is reaching more toward the hard right and is "going to be much more limited in the path he's taking," McClung said.

Yet other analysts say Perry is accurately gauging the prevailing national mood as he portrays Texas as a limited-government economic success story while much of the country is still suffering from a sluggish economy.

"I think the question is becoming why wouldn't he get in this race," said conservative strategist Keith Appell, senior vice president for CRC Public Relations of Alexandria, Va. "I think it's a center-right country to begin with, as demonstrated with the rise of the Tea Party. If the economy stays the same or gets worse by this time next year, Daffy Duck could beat Barack Obama."

Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.

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