In 1986, I was running the Texas Democratic Party primary, and in walked an attractive rancher who submitted his filing to run as a Democrat for state representative for a district in rural West Texas. That rancher is now the state’s Republican governor, Rick Perry. I have known him for 25 years off and on, and I know his staff very well. And Perry is about to become a dominant force in the Republican nomination process for president.
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Nearly a year ago, I wrote a column for National Journal saying that we need to watch out for Perry, that he would make a formidable presidential candidate, even though he had expressed no interest at the time in running. But the political environment and the Republican field made me think that Perry could have a legitimate shot.
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Many people have asked me what kind of candidate he will be, or how I think his campaign will do if he makes the leap and enters the race.
Having observed and known the governor, both as a Democrat and as a Republican, through 13 election cycles, I offer a primer on Perry in five key points:
- He is an extremely astute politician with a keen sense of where voters are, and he has great instincts on message. Perry has ruthless discipline and communication. They say in politics, “Don’t let your boot off an opponent’s neck till Election Day.” Perry doesn’t take his boot off till a year after the votes have been counted and the opponent has faded into oblivion. He is actually a better campaigner than George W. Bush (Perry’s predecessor as Texas governor) was when he first entered the national scene.
- Perry has surrounded himself with a very loyal staff. His aides believe in him, and he in them. He is involved in campaign decisions, but he delegates well and doesn't stop being loyal because a mistake might be made. This is a huge advantage in the ebb and flow of presidential campaigns.
- His statements related to possible Texas secession actually helped him in his recent race in 2010, and will help him in a national campaign in the Republican primaries and caucuses. In an environment where Republican voters despise the federal government, anti-Washington rhetoric is music to their ears. Conversely, this talk will hurt him in a general-election race. Moderate voters in the Midwest will see it as off-putting.
- Although he has run many times for both district and statewide office in Texas, Perry has never been fully vetted by the media. He underwent some scrutiny in his races for governor, but he has never endured the full-court press that happens in a presidential race. What the media discovers will not be as important as how he and the campaign handle the intense spotlight for the first time. Perry and some of his staffers are known to have thin skins. They will need to grow calluses if they are to succeed in the show.
- Perry has never lost a race. While many immediately list this as a positive (and it is laudable and suggests huge talent), losing at some point in your career makes you better when the inevitable problems hit. I have learned more from my losses in life and politics than from my victories. It’s the losses that really cause self-reflection and growth. President Obama and former Presidents Bush (father and son), Clinton, Reagan, and Nixon learned enormous amounts from setbacks in their political careers, and those losses eventually helped them win the White House. We know Perry can win. The real question is: Can he suffer defeat and rise to the next battle?
It’s anyone’s guess how Perry will do if he enters the race for president. So far, he has risen in the polls and been applauded more and more by Republican activists while he stays on the sideline. So it’s hard not to wonder whether he’s better as an abstract proposition than as an actual candidate. We shall soon find out. My guess is that Perry’s trajectory will go in one of two opposing directions: He will march consistently and strongly and become the nominee, or he will crash in a spectacular manner. I don’t see any middle ground. Either way, this is going to be great theater. And interestingly, looking ahead to a possible run against President Obama, the last really close general-election race Perry had was in 1998 for lieutenant governor, and the media strategist for his Democratic opponent, John Sharp, was a familiar name--David Axelrod.
(Matthew Dowd, a National Journal columnist and analyst for ABC News, is a veteran political strategist who has worked for Democratic and Republican politicians -- including former President George W. Bush)