AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry appears to be bounding toward a full-scale plunge into the 2012 presidential race with visits to two early battleground states this week, where he is likely to tout Texas' robust economic growth and job creation while President Barack Obama struggles against an onslaught of bad economic news.
Perry is expected to remove any lingering doubt that he is running for president when he appears before a gathering of conservatives at the third annual RedState conference in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday, according to a report in Politico on Monday.
Later Saturday, he heads to New Hampshire to meet with potential supporters at the home of a state representative.
Perry's appearance in South Carolina, which conducts the first primary in the South, could upstage a Republican straw poll being held the same day in Ames, Iowa, and dramatically shake up the GOP nomination battle.
Perry has been reaching out to Republican leaders and key fundraisers for weeks and has soared into the upper tier of Republican contenders in most polls.
"Everybody knows he's going to get into the race," said Austin consultant Bill Miller.
Miller said a high-ranking source "very close" to the Perry camp responded, "Ready to rumble," after Miller sent a text asking about South Carolina.
Mark Miner, the governor's spokesman, and Dave Carney, Perry's longtime chief strategist, declined to elaborate on the Politico report and used identical language in responding to multiple media inquiries.
"The governor is not a candidate for office at this time," they said in their responses. "With President Obama's dismal economic record, and Texas' success in creating jobs and balancing our budget, Governor Perry continues to consider a potential run for the White House.
"Stay tuned," they added.
The plunge in the stock market and downgrade in the nation's credit rating are likely to give Perry added ammunition to bash the Democratic president's job performance. He is certain to hit hard Saturday on one of his favorite political themes -- the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs in Texas that helped keep the second-largest state on a relatively healthy financial footing while many other states have struggled.
Over the weekend, Perry reached out to a core component of Republican primary voters -- Christian conservatives -- with what was largely viewed as a successful daylong prayer gathering in Houston that drew more than 30,000 participants.
Perry is not on the straw-poll ballot in Iowa, but supporters in an independent organization known as Americans for Rick Perry are waging a write-in campaign on his behalf. Robert Schuman, a California consultant and businessman who organized the group, said Perry's appearance in South Carolina "kind of steps on the straw poll."
"It sounds like a smart strategy," Schuman said.
The South Carolina appearance is expected to fall short of an official entry into the race. The Associated Press, citing a Republican source close to Perry, said a formal announcement is tentatively planned for the middle of next week in Houston, although Perry has not made a final decision.
Aides say Perry's travel schedule should allay any doubts about his intentions, the AP said.
South Carolina's primary follows the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Chad Connelly, the state Republican chairman, said "there's a pretty good buzz" for Perry among South Carolina Republicans.
Perry is expected to appear today at an event in Austin that is being held to raise money for his state campaign coffers. On Wednesday morning, he will address the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in San Antonio.