WASHINGTON — Texas Gov. Rick Perry enters the Republican presidential primary campaign Saturday as a formidable candidate with a strong message on jobs creation, but he also has some vulnerabilities likely to surface from his long tenure as governor.
"Everything's fair game," said Austin, Texas, political consultant Bill Miller, who has Democratic and Republican clients.
Perry's Republican opponents barely touched his impending candidacy at Thursday's debate in Iowa, but once Perry officially announces Saturday in South Carolina, expect them — and Democrats, too — to step up their criticisms.
Here, then, are some likely flash points:
Vaccinations for girls — In 2007, Perry issued an executive order requiring Texas girls entering the sixth grade to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus, the human papillomavirus. The outcry from parents and lawmakers that mandating Gardasil, a Merck & Co. vaccine, amounted to state interference in parental decisions led the Texas Legislature to rescind his order. Perry has maintained that the vaccinations were voluntary.
Amid the controversy were charges of cronyism because Perry's former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, was a Merck lobbyist. Perry denied any favoritism.
Trans-Texas Corridor — Perry introduced the ambitious concept in 2002 of a network of corridors linking major Texas cities, with toll roads for cars and trucks, tracks for freight and passenger rail, and rights of way for power lines and pipelines. But the $175 billion, 4,000-mile network was immediately controversial, as Perry signed a contract with a Spanish consortium to build it and then used eminent domain powers to acquire private land. After sustained public opposition, the state abandoned the large-scale project — and its name, which had become toxic — in 2009 in favor of some highways and smaller projects.
Texas debt/economy — Texas critics of Perry say that while the state may claim 37 percent of net job creation in the country since June 2009, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve, the jobs are low-paying and that even then the governor shouldn't take the credit.
"The narrative about Texas jobs' miracle dissolves," said Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice, an Austin-based watchdog group. "The price of oil is responsible and really helped our economy."
Democrats are vocal about the state's rising debt, which grew from $13.4 billion to $37.8 billion from 2001 to 2010, according to the Texas Bond Review Board.
"The number one issue he's vulnerable on is debt," said Matt Angle, the director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research group. "When he took office it was zero. That goes against his message of fiscal responsibility." The state budget must be balanced by law, but the state may still incur bond obligations.
But Perry has been resilient against such criticism — since the budget is balanced — and McDonald thinks the economy argument may not fly with the Republican primary voters. "I think he has very few vulnerabilities among the primary electorate," McDonald said. "It's going to be hard to find a weakness that sticks to Rick Perry in the primary."
Texas fatigue — A less-tangible but frequent comment about Perry's candidacy is about his "Texas-ness." Less than three years after another Texan left the White House, some political observers wonder whether the country is ready for another president from the Lone Star State, especially since George W. Bush was so unpopular after his two-term presidency.
"Oh, it's real," Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said of the fatigue factor. "But not in the Republican primary. Among Republicans, Bush still has an overwhelmingly positive image."
Perry, for his part, has used the can-do, go-it-alone perception of the state to his advantage and reveled in his pro-Texas, anti-Washington image.
Wealthy donors and influence — Texas finance laws allow unlimited individual campaign contributions — in contrast to the $2,500 per election federal limit — and Perry has benefited from what are known as "mega-donors," who give $100,000 or more to his campaigns.
Almost half of the $102.8 million that Perry raised from 2001 through 2010 came from 204 such mega-donors, according to an analysis by Texans for Public Justice.
Perry's largest contributor is homebuilder Bob Perry (no relation), who with his wife has given $2.5 million to the governor's campaigns over the last 10 years. (Bob Perry also contributed more than $4 million to the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ad campaign against 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.) The governor's office says the homebuilder has never asked for any favors.
Environmentalists charge that another large Perry contributor, Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons — who gave him $1.1 million over 10 years — benefits from Perry influence in getting state approvals to expand a low-level radioactive waste site in West Texas to receive waste from other states.
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