AUSTIN, Texas — As he embarks on what could be his last legislative session Gov. Rick Perry radiates a sunny self-confidence, insisting that his focus is rigidly trained on the next 140 days under the dome of the Texas Capitol -- and not some distant political race.
"That's so far down the road for me," Perry said in an interview Tuesday in his second-floor capitol office, in reference to a potential re-election run or a second run for the White House. "I'm doing what I enjoy doing but I'm not distracted by 2014 [the next governor's race]. Sure not distracted about 2016 [the next presidential race.] Plenty of time with that."
At 62, the man from Paint Creek is doing what he's been doing since December of 2000. As the state's longest-serving governor, with more than a dozen years of tenure, Perry has been engaged in seven regular 140-day sessions, including the one that started Tuesday, and nine shorter special sessions.
Now, midway into his third four-year term, Perry clearly plans to reassert his authority during the session, waving off any notion that his failed presidential bid last year might have undercut his power in dealing with lawmakers.
"I've been underestimated many times before," he declared.
Within minutes after Perry folded his presidential campaign in South Carolina, his chief spokesman said the Republican governor wasn't ruling out another presidential race in 2016 and was also looking at a 2014 re-election bid for a fourth term as governor, a venture that would keep him in office until January of 2019.
His current term ends in January of 2015, meaning Perry would leave office immediately before the next regular session if he doesn't seek another term or gets beaten for re-election. Perry has repeatedly said he would announce his decision in June, after the May 27 legislative adjournment, and potential upwardly mobile Republican political figures such as Attorney Gen. Greg Abbott or Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst presumably have a deep interest in his plans.
Allan Saxe, associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington says he's betting that Perry will run after using the session "to shore up his conservative credentials" with tough stands on issues such as gun rights and school safety. The analyst also predicts that Perry will be a powerful force during the legislative session and will muscle through many of his initiatives.
"He has a tremendous base. He fools people who believe he's weak or going to be defeated," said Saxe. "He really has a tremendous lot of staying power."
Republican analyst Matt Mackowiak, president of the Austin-based Potomac Strategy Group, said Perry's potential success in the Legislature has been enhanced by a surprisingly robust $101.4 billion revenue estimate that gives the governor -- as well lawmakers -- added flexibility to consider popular options such as tax relief or a tax rebate. The added revenue also gives policy-makers more money to shore up Texas' infrastucture, such as water and transportation.
"I actually think there's a real opportunity for him to have a successful session." said Mackowiak, who also believes Perry is eyeing a future political run.
Sitting behind his desk -- and not wearing a suit jacket -- Perry was friendly and relaxed as he looked toward the session and vowed to continue the conservative, business-oriented fiscal policies that have characterized his administration. "I'm healthy and happy," he said. "Everything goes good in my life."
Repeating a message he delivered to both chambers of the Legislature, he urged fiscal restraint in spending but said the expanded revenue base could enable lawmakers to "open a very broad conservation" with the public on tax relief.
"We know the formula that has worked really well for the last decade in Texas has been not to spend all the money, to prioritize what's important, to separate wants from needs and balance the budget," Perry said. "If now we've created an environment where there's a surplus that we could return in tax relief or fee relief ... then let's have that conversation."
Kind words for Davis
Perry also extended an olive branch to State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat who won re-election in November despite a GOP-led assault on behalf of her Republican opponent, former Rep. Mark Shelton of Fort Worth.
Perry, who endorsed Shelton, described Davis as "smart, articulate" and "very capable" and said he expects to work "quite well" with the Democratic senator.
"I'm really good about differentiating between political campaigns and government," he said. "She and I don't always agree on philosophical issues. but that's why we come here. If we disagree, we disagree."