Rick Perry's wife takes a shaky step into the political limelight

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 19, 2011 

WASHINGTON — After 10 years as a mostly low-key first lady of Texas, Anita Perry is suddenly making a splash on the presidential campaign trail.

Anita Perry followed Texas Gov. Rick Perry's combative debate performance Tuesday night in Las Vegas as the luncheon speaker to the Republican Women of Las Vegas on Wednesday, and she stayed on the attack. Alluding to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has displaced Perry as front-runner in several polls, she said her husband "not only campaigns as a conservative, he governs as a conservative."

"He has the right record to lead the country," said Anita Perry. "He has a conservative vision to get America working again."

In South Carolina last week, Anita Perry, 59, stunned political observers, especially Texans who had known her for years, by complaining in very emotional terms about how hard the presidential campaign has been on them.

"It's been a rough month," Anita Perry said in a speech last week at North Greenville University in South Carolina, a Baptist school. "We have been brutalized and beaten up and chewed up in the press. We are being brutalized by our opponents and our own party. So much of that is, I think they look at him, because of his faith."

She said she was the one who had convinced Rick Perry to run for president in the first place — a "calling" from God, she said in South Carolina, because she had seen "the burning bush" before he did.

"That's the central state for Perry," Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University, said of South Carolina. "She's got to use all her Southern skills in that regard. She wanted to emphasize that he's a believer."

Question is, is the former nurse a formidable helpmate or a political problem as Rick Perry tries to regain momentum in the presidential race?

Perry's campaign did not respond to a request for an interview with Anita Perry.

Bill Miller, an Austin, Texas, political consultant who hired Anita Perry in the 1990s, said of her South Carolina speech: "I was surprised. The emotion of the moment caught me by surprise. It's one of the things I wouldn't expect to see from her."

Miller, who said he "adored" Anita Perry, added: "I don't think she's prepared for the day-to-day grind of the presidential campaign."

Certainly, Texans not used to seeing Anita Perry active publicly except alongside her husband, were surprised.

"She (Anita) has never involved herself in any substantive way in Gov. Perry's campaigns," said Austin-based Democratic political strategist Harold Cook. While some political experts were critical of her new advocacy role for her husband, Cook said, "He's so far in the ditch right now, that it's got to help."

Rick Perry has seen his support drop by half since becoming the front-runner shortly after his August announcement that he was running, largely because of several poor debate performances.

Southern Methodist University political expert Cal Jillson said that he would describe Anita Perry until now as "invisible."

"She's never spoken publicly in the limelight," said Jillson. Of her South Carolina appearance, he said, "She can't be that vulnerable and emotional again — it's not helpful."

Richard Murray, a political scientist at the University of Houston said, "I realize now why she didn't speak much in the last 25 years in Texas. I just thought it was way out of bounds."

Still, Anita Perry also has many fans.

"She has a great reputation in Texas," said Pat Oxford, chairman of Bracewell Giuliani, a Houston law firm.

"I've met Anita on several occasions," said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. "She's been an involved and engaged first lady of Texas, and I think Anita has shown that she can be just as engaged at the national level."

Shortly after becoming Texas's first lady, Anita Perry started the Texas Conference for Women, an annual gathering designed to empower women.

"I'd give it an A+ in outreach and diversity," said Laura Murillo, president and CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "She is someone who is very committed to this."

Anita Perry has also been a working spouse: Since 2003, she's been a fundraiser for the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. Deputy Director Torie Camp said in an interview that Perry, who is paid $60,000 a year, has raised $1.5 million during her eight years at the non-profit.

"I think she's done a great job," said Camp. "She's charming to meet and to talk to."

The native of Haskell, Texas — who met Rick Perry at a piano recital when they were children — has been married to the Texas governor since 1982. They have two children — a son, Griffin, and a daughter, Sydney, both in their 20s.

At the Las Vegas luncheon at Maggiano's Little Italy restaurant, she told the 200 women present that she's all in for the presidential campaign. "Our children are all in. Our four dogs are all in," she said.

(David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed from Las Vegas.)

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