CHARLESTON, S. C. — After more than a decade as his state's longest serving governor, Texan Rick Perry moved onto the national political stage Saturday by declaring his entry into the 2012 presidential race, immediately transforming the scramble for the Republican nomination.
"It is time to get America working again," Perry said. "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."
Perry's announcement came in a speech before a crowd of about 500 at a gathering organized by RedState, a conservative political blog. It was peppered with steady jabs at President Barack Obama.
"One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a full-time job. That is not a recovery, that is an economic disaster. Mr. President, you can't win the future by selling it off to foreign creditors."
Perry's entrance is anticipated to immediately shake up the 2012 race and, some polls place him within striking distance of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered the current leader of the pack.
"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 — more than 900,000 from December 2000 to December 2009 — is his lure, they say.
"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 must be 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?"
Despite polls showing him in the top tier of Republican contenders, he now 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 explain to a national audience his first six years in politics, spent as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives, 2009 talk of the state's 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.
Nancy Johnson, an evangelical Christian who lives on Daniel Island in South Carolina and attended Saturday's event, said the HPV vaccination decision was bad one. But she would take it as one of hundreds he has had to make as governor for the past 11 years - as the state's longest serving governor.
"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."
Shortly after his announcement in South Carolina, Perry and his new campaign entourage were to head to New Hampshire for a reception hosted by a key New Hampshire lawmaker. He then goes to Iowa to speak at a major Republican dinner in Waterloo on Sunday night and will greet voters at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Monday.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley complimented Perry for a "brilliant" strategy to announce his candidacy on today in South Carolina, a move that upstaged a straw poll of other Republican candidates in Ames, Iowa.
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.
Perry is one of most resilient figures in modern state political history and has never lost an election since entering public service as a state legislator from West Texas in 1985. He went on to serve three terms in the State Legislature 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, serving as the presiding officer of the state senate before Bush's ascent to the president vaulted him into the governor's office. He went on to win election to become the first governor to win 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.)
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