Can Rick Perry take the lead in the crowded GOP field?

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 13, 2011 

CHARLESTON, S. C. — After more than a decade as his state's longest serving governor, Texan Rick Perry on Saturday declared that he is seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, adding yet another name to what has become a scramble for the right to challenge Barack Obama for the nation's top job.

"It is time to get America working again," Perry said in a speech to a convention of conservatives organized by the website RedState. "That's why, with the support of my family, and an unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today my candidacy for president of the United States."

He wasted no time in slamming Obama's record, attacking the president on a wide range of issues and claiming credit for generating tens of thousands of jobs in Texas.

"The fact is, for nearly three years President Obama has been downgrading American jobs, he's been downgrading our standing in the world, he's been downgrading our financial stability, he's been downgrading our confidence and downgrading the hope for a better future for our children," Perry said.

That generated a quick response from Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, who called Perry's job creation claims a "tall tale" and Perry himself a "carbon copy" of Washington Republicans, whose policies hurt the middle class.

Polls have placed Perry in the top tier of Republican contenders since he first started emerging as a likely candidate, but he faces a barrage of scrutiny from the media and ramped-up opposition from his competitors now that he is officially in the race.

Perry will likely need to give additional explanations to a national audience about his first six years in politics, spent as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives, his 2009 suggestion that Texas had the right to secede from the union and a 2007 executive order he signed that required Texas girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.

His claims about job and the health of the Texas economy also will face challenges. Perry critics say the petroleum industry, not Perry's policies, can be credited for job growth. They also note that during his tenure the state's debt has ballooned from $13.4 billion in 2001 to $37.8 billion in 2010, according to the Texas Bond Review Board, and that the state faces a $27 billion budget deficit, a shortfall often blamed on a Perry-backed tax cut.

Still, Perry's entrance is all but certain to shake up the 2012 race, which is crowded with candidates, declared and undeclared. Nine Republican names were on the ballot in Iowa's straw poll Saturday, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin paid a visit to the state fairgrounds, though she hasn't said she'll run.

Many believe Perry will quickly challenge former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the perceived frontrunner, though Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll, with 4,823 votes. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, came in second, with 4,671 votes.

Romney, who did not mount a campaign to win the straw poll, which has no official bearing on the race, finished seventh, with 567 votes, fewer than the 718 write-in ballots cast for Perry that earned the Texas governor sixth place.

"There's a lot of expectation about Perry," said Scott Huffmon, a pollster and political scientist at South Carolina's Winthrop University. "There's a belief that if there's a candidate who can appeal to everyone in the modern conservative movement, it's thought to be Rick Perry."

Many of those groups were represented at Saturday's event _ Tea Party members, social conservatives and business owners _ all of whom say the struggling economy is their top issue. Perry's claims of growing jobs in his home state is his lure, they said.

"We are in such terrible financial shape in this country," said Gerri McDaniel of the Myrtle Beach, S.C., Tea Party, which is planning to endorse a candidate, then go to work on the grassroots level. "We've got to have someone to bring jobs back to this country."

Politicos agree that a top priority for Perry, who drew three standing ovations during his 22-minute speech, must be able to take advantage of his crossover appeal among Republican splinter groups and excite the base.

"We know he'll appeal to the GOP base. But can he excite them?" Huffmon said. "How does he do on the stump?"

Nancy Johnson, an evangelical Christian who lives on Daniel Island in South Carolina and attended Saturday's event, said she disliked the governor's HPV vaccination order, but that she was willing to overlook it because of other stands he's taken over the years. Recent polls show that nearly half of all likely Republican voters in South Carolina consider themselves evangelical Christians.

"He represents everything we believe in, Christ and the Bible," Johnson said. "I wouldn't make a decision about him based on that one decision."

Perry's candidacy followed weeks of behind-the-scenes preparations as the governor and his campaign team sought to build a nationwide organization and reach out to fund-raisers across the country to make sure that the Texas governor would be able to go the distance in a campaign that could cost well over $100 million.

Although his decisive re-election victory in 2010 and increased visibility as a national conservative leader fueled speculation that he was a potential 2012 contender, Perry spent months denying any interest in the race. He reversed course near the end of this year's legislative session when he told reporters that would "think about" entering the race.

Perry has cited his wife, Anita, as a decisive influence in nudging him toward a run for the White House. The state's First Lady, a nurse, told her husband to consider getting out of his "comfort zone" as governor to tackle national problems, including the foundering economy and what Republicans seeing as a devastating impact on states because of President Obama's health care plan.

A native of Paint Creek, a small farming community about 50 miles from Abilene in West Texas, Perry offers a Marlboro Man Texas-style persona with his rugged good looks and a Washington-bashing message that reflects the prevailing conservative mood in his home state. He also enters the race with strong appeal to Tea Party activists who helped fuel state and national Republican victories in 2008.

Perry is seeking to be the fourth president from Texas, following Republicans George W. Bush and his father, George H. W. Bush, and Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, who became president in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and went on to serve a full four-year term before backing away from a re-election bid at the height of the Vietnam War era.

The prospect of "Texas fatigue" is a potential liability for Perry, coming less than four years after George W. Bush left office as the last president from the Lone Star State. Perry, who was then lieutenant governor, became governor in December of 2000 after Bush became president but the two have had their political differences. Several of Bush's key operatives backed U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in her unsuccessful primary challenge against Perry in 2010.

"It really hit me today listening to him," said Shell Suber, a Republican political consultant in South Carolina where the nation's first-in-the-South primary will be held in February. Since 1980, the state's Republican voters have accurately picked the eventual presidential nominee. "You can close your eyes and hear George Bush because they have the same accent."

Perry has never lost an election since entering public service as a state legislator from West Texas in 1985. He served three terms as a Democrat before switching parties to successfully run for state agriculture commissioner in 1990.

After two terms in the agriculture post, he won election as lieutenant governor in 1998, before Bush's ascent to the presidency vaulted him into the governor's office. He is the first Texas governor to have won election to three full terms.

Perry seemed in danger after only 39 percent of the state's voters returned him to office against four known candidates in 2006 but he rebounded and easily defeated Hutchison and Democratic challenger Bill White in 2010.

The Texas governor is going into presidential combat with much of the same team that has been by his side since his lieutenant governor's race in 1998. His chief political strategist is Dave Carney, a New Hampshire based political consultant. Ray Sullivan, his chief of staff in the governor's, is moving to the campaign team as communications director, and Deirdre Delisi, who Perry appointed as chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, is expected to become policy director for the campaign.

Mark Miner, Perry's chief spokesman in the governor's office, will become the campaign's national press secretary.

(Montgomery reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Smith for The State in Columbia, S.C. Maria Recio in Washington and Steven Thomma in Ames, Iowa, contributed to this report.)

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