AUSTIN, Texas — Many of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's favorite themes could have come straight from the tea party handbook: limited government, resistance to federal intrusion, contempt for big spending and "Obama care."
As he moves closer to a run for the presidency, he packs a message that seems well attuned to the conservative activists who could play an influential role in the selection of the next Republican presidential nominee. Indeed, among tea party supporters, Perry topped the field of announced and unannounced Republican candidates in a McClatchy-Marist poll conducted in mid-June.
But back home in Texas, Perry has drawn criticism from some tea party activists for his stands on immigration, toll roads and other issues.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, which will host key early contests in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes, leaders in the tea party and related movements effectively say the jury is still out on Perry until they take a closer look at his record.
"I don't think there is really a consensus," said Adrian Murray, former president of the 912 Project Fort Worth, a conservative grass-roots group. "You could sit down with someone who absolutely can't wait for him to run, and you talk to others who are absolutely aghast at the prospect."
What isn't in doubt is the continued potency of the tea party movement, which began emerging in 2009 and helped fuel Republican sweeps in Texas and other states in the 2010 elections.
Although the intense, placard-filled rallies that helped define the movement in its earlier days seem to have diminished, tea party leaders say activists are perhaps better organized and more energetic than ever in advance of an election that will decide whether Democrat Barack Obama stays in the White House for another four years.
"No one really knows just how big it (the tea party movement) will be, but clearly it is the primary source of energy within the Republican Party right now," said Lee M. Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the June 15-23 poll with McClatchy. "There isn't a Republican wannabe who doesn't want the blessings of the tea party right now."
The survey showed Perry with 20 percent support among tea party voters, ahead of other Republicans known for strong tea party appeal, such as 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and fellow Texan U.S. Rep. Ron Paul.
"As far as tea party supporters are concerned, they are very much at home with him both in terms of his social and economic conservatism," Miringoff said. "Even though he's on the sidelines, that's sometimes when you're at your strong point. ... What tea party supporters have seen so far, they like."
Some tea party activists in Texas say there are elements of Perry's stewardship of the nation's second largest state that they clearly don't like. Dallas patent lawyer Ken Emanuelson, a co-founder of the Dallas Tea Party, said that many activists in Texas thought that Perry's stand on some issues tended "to leave something to be desired."
Texas tea parties and related groups were angered by the Legislature's failure to pass key immigration bills, included a "sanctuary city" ban that would allow local officers to question suspects about their immigration status. Perry supported the sanctuary city measure and included it in a recent special session, where the bill died.
Emanuelson said tea party leaders thought that Perry could have played a more aggressive role in pushing the bill, and they want the governor to call another special session to deal with immigration issues.
Tea party critics have faulted Perry over his aggressive push for the now-dead Trans-Texas Corridor, which would have acquired thousands of acres of private property to build toll roads and other highways, and for his record as a former Democrat who was Al Gore's Texas campaign chairman in 1988.
Despite the concerns, Perry has championed many of the litmus test issues advanced by the tea party and was one of the first political officials in Texas to recognize the movement's political power.
He's spoken at numerous tea party rallies and echoes tea party-oriented themes in his book, "Fed Up." Defiance of what he considers federal overreach and his calls to roll back government — exemplified by his insistence on spending cuts and no taxes during the recent legislative session — have been hallmarks of his decade-long tenure in the governor's office.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner, while acknowledging that "there is always room for disagreement," said that Texas' longest-serving governor and the tea party share "common goals." Perry's policies, Miner said, "resonate with a majority of tea party activists."
Perry, who began contemplating an entry into the race about two months ago, is expected to make a decision in several weeks. In Iowa and New Hampshire, some conservatives said they were trying to size up his record, while others said they were waiting until he made a decision before scrutinizing his positions.
"I think there is kind of a yearning for a candidate like Governor Perry," said Rob Gettemy, a Marion, Iowa, businessman who ran unsuccessfully for Congress last year. "We don't have a tea party candidate who has executive experience."
(Montgomery reports for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
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