"Governor of Texas Leads Field for Republican Nomination for President."
If you guessed that this is a headline from 1999 about George W. Bush, guess again. It's a prediction about the current Texas governor, Rick Perry. I am not saying that Perry should be selected as the GOP's White House candidate in 2012; I am saying that he has a great shot at being nominated.
Why go out on a limb about someone who has said he isn't interested in running for president, has no national organization, and isn't being discussed as a possible GOP contender? Stick with me while I explain.
Republicans are going to do well -- perhaps very well -- in the midterm elections because voters are frustrated and angry, as evidenced by the passion of the tea party movement. But a number of the tea party favorites are going to lose in November, and Republicans will not be able to get anything done in Washington because, at best, they will have slim majorities in Congress. President Obama will block any attempts to roll back his initiatives.
So voter anger, especially among Republicans, won't go away. It will be like a boiling teapot, and the midterms aren't going to be enough to let the steam out. The pot will continue to boil away, and the steam will look for another place to vent. That opening will be the presidential nominating process.
Many Republican voters will want a candidate who speaks directly and passionately to their anti-Washington concerns. Some of the most-talked-about GOP contenders fail that test. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich, John Thune, and Haley Barbour are competent and qualified, but some of them are tarred with Washington experience and each has difficulty tapping into voter rage.
You might say that scenario opens the door for Sarah Palin. Yes, it does, and she definitely has a shot. But the problem is that many Republican voters (even among tea party folks) see Palin more as a celebrity than as a credible candidate, and she carries tremendous baggage. National leaders fear she would embarrass the party and get trounced in the general election.
Perry can speak to the anger of folks who feel forgotten.
So which Republican is able to speak passionately to this anti-establishment fervor and has credibility as an elected official? Gov. Rick Perry. Here's why:
* His biography is compelling. Perry grew up dirt poor on a ranch in West Texas near a town named Paint Creek. He worked his way through Texas A&M University, a farming and agriculture college. He went on to become a Democratic state legislator, but he switched parties in the late 1980s when Texas began to turn away from the Democrats. Perry was the first Republican since Reconstruction to serve as state agriculture commissioner and as lieutenant governor. He is now Texas's longest-serving governor, and he has balanced the state budget every year. That's a record that will be noticed at a time when budget deficits and federal spending are big issues.
* Perry has tremendous ability to communicate anti-Washington sentiment and to speak to the anger and concerns of folks in cities and small towns who feel forgotten. He showed this capacity in walloping popular GOP Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she took him on this year for governor. And not long after the midterms, he has a book coming out, Fed Up, which blasts the feds.
* Texas is a great place to launch a presidential campaign. The state has a huge trove of delegates, contributors, and voters; plus, statewide candidates are used to operating in 19 different media markets. It is no accident that in every open Republican nomination for president in the past 40 years, a Texan has run for president. And although some will say that Bush's legacy has turned the Texas's governor's job into a liability, Republican primary voters aren't likely to see it that way. Many of them still adore the former president.
* Having no national organization or large infrastructure at this point is a genuine asset for Perry. In today's Internet environment, lean campaigns will be the most successful. Organizations that foster speedy decisions and dialogue with voters will be king.
Bottom line: I have no idea if Perry wants to run for president or will run for president, but he has a real shot of grabbing the Republican nomination in today's political environment. His first order of business, however, needs to be winning his re-election battle in Texas on November 2.
This article appears in the October 9, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine.