The New Rick Perry

He’s hardworking, he’s bipartisan, he’s recasting himself for 2016.

Charis Tsevis
Add to Briefcase
Michelle Cottle
Aug. 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

Let’s start with the glasses. You know what I’m talk­ing about: the dark-rimmed, nerd-chic eye­wear that, since last sum­mer, has emerged as the sym­bol of the new Rick Perry—ser­i­ous, thought­ful, vaguely hip­ster­ish. Perry crit­ics mock them as a des­per­ate ploy to make the gov­ernor look smarter, to erase the un­flat­ter­ing con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, ce­men­ted dur­ing his 2012 pres­id­en­tial flameout, that he isn’t all that bright. Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike joke about wheth­er the lenses are simply clear glass. Re­cently, when Perry and Sen. Rand Paul got in­to an op-ed spat over for­eign policy, Paul snarked that the gov­ernor’s “new glasses haven’t altered his per­cep­tion of the world, or al­lowed him to see it any more clearly.”

I’d been won­der­ing about the glasses, too. When I spent time with Perry in South Car­o­lina a few weeks ago, the gov­ernor had ac­ci­dent­ally left his spec­tacles back in Aus­tin. “This is the first time I haven’t had them in months!” he com­plained to me after I pulled out my own pair to read the logo on his black golf shirt. “I see fine at a dis­tance,” he ex­plained. But read­ing things close up, like notes for a speech? For­get it. (Shortly after our con­ver­sa­tion, an aide was dis­patched to a North Char­le­ston shop­ping mall to pro­cure an identic­al re­place­ment from a one-hour op­tic­al shop.)

A couple of weeks later, I emailed the gov­ernor’s of­fice to con­firm that his much-dis­cussed eye­wear is used primar­ily for read­ing. In­stead of a simple “yes,” “no,” or “not ex­actly,” I re­ceived an email say­ing Perry would phone me him­self to chat about “the de­tails on the eye stuff.”

And chat he did. On Ju­ly 25, en route home from the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation’s three-day con­fab in As­pen, Perry spent a gen­er­ous 15 minutes or more walk­ing me through his oph­thal­mo­lo­gic­al his­tory—the gist of which really should be con­veyed more or less ver­batim:

“In 1967, when I was a young seni­or in high school, I was hit in the eye with a rock thrown across a foot­ball field by my best friend.” The of­fend­ing pro­jectile “was a smooth stone, the size between a 50-cent piece and a sil­ver dol­lar. It hit me dir­ectly in the left eye. I lost com­plete vis­ion in that eye.”

“Liv­ing where we lived, I didn’t have ac­cess to an oph­thal­mo­lo­gist for a peri­od of time. Long story short, Michelle: My eye mi­ra­cu­lously was healed. I don’t know why. My left eye had filled with blood. I lost com­plete vis­ion. And the eye­sight came back after a peri­od of time.” He cla­ri­fies: “We’re talk­ing about over the course of a month or so.”

(Steven Noreyko)Even­tu­ally, Perry re­ceived a prop­er eye ex­am. “I think an oph­thal­mo­lo­gist took a look and said, ‘Your vis­ion’s fine.’ And so I went on about my life. I went to school. I got a con­tract with the United States Air Force to fly planes. Ob­vi­ously, an eye ex­am is one of the most rig­or­ous parts of that type of phys­ic­al ex­am. My eye­sight was 20/20.” In all his fly­boy days, Perry as­sures me, “there was nev­er, ever any oph­thal­mo­lo­gist or eye ex­am that ever ques­tioned any­thing about my eye­sight.”

“So I go on through life. I hit my 40s, which is when eye­sight starts to de­teri­or­ate. I nev­er really had any de­teri­or­a­tion. Then in my mid 50s—around 2004 or 2005—I start no­ti­cing that I needed some 1.25 or 1.5 read­ing glasses in the even­ing, like if I’m read­ing the Bible or a little something be­fore I go to bed. Then I used the little ones you get at Wal-Mart.” He chuckles. “Be­ing a very frugal fel­low, I would buy three for $10 at Wal-Mart. I’d leave them lay­ing around.”

Fast-for­ward to shortly after the 2012 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. One night, sit­ting in his of­fice at the state Cap­it­ol, the gov­ernor no­ticed that some air vents run­ning along the wall no longer looked straight to him. “So I did a little self-ex­am and figured out that in my left eye there was some dis­tor­tion in my vis­ion. I went to see an oph­thal­mo­lo­gist. She said, ‘You know what, I’m go­ing to send you to a ret­ina ex­pert. I’m see­ing some things in here that are troub­ling.’ “

And so off Perry went to Aus­tin’s Dr. Armie Harp­er. “He dia­gnosed me with what is re­ferred to as pre-ret­in­al fibrosis. For a lay­man, what that is—that in­jury that oc­curred 45 years ago was start­ing to mani­fest it­self.” Un­like the smooth, con­cave curve of a nor­mal ret­ina, ex­plains Perry, “mine went up and then dipped down and went back up. It looked like some­body had pushed the ret­ina in. What it is, it was the scar tis­sue that had nev­er been read­ily vis­ible from an eye ex­am. He said, ‘It’s like Saran wrap, when you heat it and it crinkles up. That’s what’s hap­pen­ing to your ret­ina. There are two ways to deal with this. Try to cor­rect it with glasses. Or have sur­gery.’ “

Harp­er told Perry the sur­gery was “pretty tech­nic­al.” “He said, ‘I do it. I’m pretty good at it’ “—more chuck­ling from the gov­ernor—”as most doc­tors would say. But he said, ‘I think you will be more com­fort­able if we try to ad­dress this with glasses.’ So any­way, there’s the story of how it came for me to make the de­cision to wear glasses.”

From there, Perry went on to ex­plain how he is right-eye dom­in­ant, how his vis­ion will fade with age much like every­one else’s, what hap­pens when he closes one eye or the oth­er, how his pro­gress­ive lenses help in vari­ous situ­ations, and how, minus his teen­age in­jury, “you’d still see me with little peep­er things we buy at Wal-Mart.” As for his styl­ish new trade­mark, Perry’s wife picked out the frames, and the gov­ernor is well aware of all the snick­er­ing. “From time to time, someone says, ‘You need to get rid of the glasses,’ ” he tells me. “And there’s a cer­tain amount of people out there who say, ‘He got the glasses to change his ap­pear­ance.’ I don’t know wheth­er it changed my ap­pear­ance or not, but I’m pretty com­fort­able. I like be­ing able to see.” 

I RE­LAY THIS ex­traordin­ar­ily com­pre­hens­ive story be­cause, first of all, I fig­ure most every­one in Wash­ing­ton has wondered at some point about Perry’s glasses. But I also share it be­cause, at least in my ex­per­i­ence, it’s some­what un­usu­al for a (po­ten­tial) pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate to call up and lead a re­port­er so far in­to the med­ic­al weeds. That Perry did so speaks to a key as­pect of his re­hab mis­sion: This is a guy seen as hav­ing mailed it in the last time he ran for pres­id­ent, stum­bling and bum­bling his way to dis­aster. This time around, wheth­er it’s find­ing the time for an ex­act­ing oph­thal­mo­lo­gic­al dis­cus­sion, mak­ing re­peat vis­its to Iowa, or of­fer­ing self-de­prec­at­ing jokes about his 2012 belly flop, Perry wants every­one to know that he is ready—gung ho, even—for the nit­pick­ing and hoop-jump­ing and all-around hard work that a ser­i­ous White House cam­paign en­tails.

And it’s true that you really can’t fault Perry for lack of polit­ic­al ef­fort these days. Earli­er this sum­mer, there was the for­eign policy ex­change with Paul, in which he took a swing at his po­ten­tial 2016 com­pet­it­or on the op-ed pages of The Wash­ing­ton Post, prompt­ing a Paul coun­ter­punch in Politico Magazine and a flurry of me­dia buzz about the feud. More re­cently, Perry has been all over the on­go­ing child-mi­grant crisis: tak­ing mul­tiple trips to the bor­der, call­ing up Na­tion­al Guard troops, and slam­ming Obama’s hand­ling of the situ­ation at every op­por­tun­ity. The gov­ernor is also work­ing hard to raise his TV pro­file, hit­ting the staid Sunday shows (Meet the Press and This Week), light­er fare such as Jimmy Kim­mel Live, and cable scrap­fests like Cross­fire. “Spar­ring with Stephanie Cut­ter is good prac­tice for him,” says Jeff Miller, Perry’s top strategist and the CEO of Amer­ic­ans for Eco­nom­ic Free­dom, the dark-money group born from the ashes of the pro-Perry su­per PAC Make Us Great Again.

At the same time, Perry is trav­el­ing the coun­try on what might best be termed a Texas vic­tory tour, brag­ging about his state’s boom­ing eco­nomy. The gov­ernor’s pre­ferred MO is to jet in­to a blue state with a less shiny eco­nom­ic out­look (Cali­for­nia and New York are his fa­vor­ite whip­ping dogs), talk up the busi­ness-friendly cli­mate back home, and in­vite loc­al busi­nesses to re­lo­cate. There have also been schmooze-athons with donors in money cen­ters in­clud­ing New York City and San Diego, policy tu­tori­als with think-tankers from AEI, Hoover, Brook­ings, and the Man­hat­tan In­sti­tute, and the oc­ca­sion­al over­seas trek (Jer­u­s­alem, Lon­don, Da­v­os). “We’re booked out like this through the end of the year,” Miller told me.

This time around, Perry wants every­one to know that he is ready for the nit­pick­ing and hoop-jump­ing and all-around hard work that a ser­i­ous White House cam­paign en­tails.

The flurry of activ­ity seems geared to send a very clear sig­nal: If he runs again, Perry isn’t go­ing to be a di­let­tante cam­paign­er. In 2012, “I learned two very good, hum­bling, frus­trat­ing les­sons,” he tells me, in a re­frain he is re­peat­ing con­stantly of late. “One is that you need to be fit—and ma­jor back sur­gery did not al­low me to be fit, phys­ic­ally or men­tally. And the oth­er is pre­par­a­tion. I don’t care how many times you have been elec­ted gov­ernor of Texas. You can­not para­chute in­to the pro­cess of be­ing vet­ted for the nom­in­a­tion for the Re­pub­lic­an Party without prop­er pre­par­a­tion. It is a long and ar­du­ous task.”

In his last bid, Perry entered the race late—in Au­gust 2011—but due to the weak­ness of the field, he im­me­di­ately be­came the front-run­ner. This sud­den prom­in­ence con­ferred ob­vi­ous perks, most not­ably the abil­ity to raise $20 mil­lion in six weeks. (“That had nev­er been done be­fore,” notes his then-strategist Dave Car­ney.) But it also came with bur­dens, in­clud­ing a re­lent­less spot­light trained on a can­did­ate who was un­tested na­tion­ally. Perry was soft, sloppy, and clue­less about how to ne­go­ti­ate the primary mine­field. It’s tough to be the front-run­ner when “you’re still try­ing to get your sea legs un­der you,” sym­path­izes Bob Vander Plaats, head of the Fam­ily Lead­er, a so­cial-con­ser­vat­ive act­iv­ist group in Iowa. “When Mike Hucka­bee was first run­ning in 2008, nobody knew who he was, so nobody was fol­low­ing him, and he got a chance to make mis­take after mis­take in farm­houses across Iowa.” By con­trast, says Vander Plaats, every “goof-up” Perry made—and there were plenty—im­me­di­ately be­came na­tion­al news.

The most fam­ous goof-up, of course, oc­curred in a Novem­ber GOP de­bate, when, in a dis­play of an­ti­gov­ern­ment fer­vor, Perry vowed to eu­th­an­ize three Cab­in­et agen­cies—but could only re­mem­ber the names of two of them (Com­merce and Edu­ca­tion). Fol­low­ing some hem­ming and haw­ing and an at­temp­ted as­sist from Mitt Rom­ney, Perry offered up an em­bar­rassed, “Oops.” Quick­er than you can say “De­part­ment of En­ergy,” he be­came a glob­al punch line.

Perry now blames the gaffe, and his shoddy per­form­ance in gen­er­al, on the back med­ic­a­tion he was tak­ing at the time. But meds aside, the broad­er prob­lem was that Perry’s en­tire can­did­acy seemed premised on the idea that he could take short­cuts. His cam­paign’s in­fra­struc­ture was deeply flawed (his team missed the Vir­gin­ia bal­lot dead­line) and its staff was cocky (they thought they could skip tire­some tasks like kiss­ing up to Iow­ans and work­ing the polit­ic­al me­dia). “They were grossly over­con­fid­ent in their own abil­it­ies—crazy con­fid­ent,” mar­vels Bill Miller, a vet­er­an GOP lob­by­ist in Aus­tin. “They were play­ing by their own rules. They thought they were geni­uses.”

Now Perry is try­ing hard to check all the boxes he missed a few years ago. “The last 20 months,” he in­forms me, “have been spent in a fairly in­tens­ive prep mode on all the big is­sues that face the com­mand­er in chief of this coun­try.” Twenty months: In oth­er words, Perry has been work­ing on a re­boot since be­fore Mitt Rom­ney’s corpse was cold. Last Ju­ly, he an­nounced he would not seek a fourth full term as gov­ernor. Freed from the Texas trail, he has de­voted much time to stump­ing for fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans across the coun­try, gath­er­ing chits, and re­in­tro­du­cing him­self to voters in states such as Flor­ida, Pennsylvania—and, of course, Iowa. Last cycle, Perry stiffed the Hawkeye State. “His team res­isted help, they denied help, and that hurt him,” says Vander Plaats. But Perry is mak­ing an ap­pro­pri­ate ef­fort this time, notes Vander Plaats, at whose Fam­ily Lead­er­ship Sum­mit the gov­ernor is signed up to speak in early Au­gust (along with 2016 maybes Bobby Jin­dal, Rick San­tor­um, Mike Hucka­bee, and Ted Cruz). “He’s learned that it doesn’t do any­body any good to skip the Iowa pro­cess,” Vander Plaats says. Cracks Bill Miller of Perry’s early, mul­tiple Iowa vis­its, “It’s kaf­feeklatsch city! If people there are drink­ing cof­fee and he’s not sit­ting at the table, it just means he had to go to the bath­room.” 

THE NEW PERRY  isn’t just work­ing harder than his 2012 in­carn­a­tion. He’s also seek­ing to oc­cupy a dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al space. Last time, Perry ran as a con­ser­vat­ive firebrand. This time, with Cruz and oth­ers suck­ing up all the oxy­gen on the right, he is try­ing out a new mes­sage. For­get the wild-eyed cow­boy squawk­ing about how Texas might be forced to se­cede from the uni­on. Today’s Perry is pitch­ing him­self as a thought­ful, seasoned eld­er states­man.

Two weeks be­fore Perry stormed the bar­be­cues of South Car­o­lina, I saw him in Wash­ing­ton as he cour­ted a very dif­fer­ent audi­ence: At the St. Re­gis hotel, he lunched with a couple of dozen re­port­ers, field­ing ques­tions and shar­ing thoughts on the state of the na­tion, the GOP, and the pres­id­ent. Look­ing es­pe­cially pres­id­en­tial—gray suit, burnt-or­ange tie, and, at 64, still the best head of hair in polit­ics—he bounced from top­ic to top­ic, but kept re­turn­ing to a couple of over­arch­ing themes.

For one thing, he hammered home the idea that the GOP (and Dems, too, for that mat­ter) must “stay fo­cused” on put­ting Amer­ica back to work and stop “get­ting dis­trac­ted” by di­vis­ive so­cial is­sues. This was, as it happened, a top­ic of in­tense in­terest at the me­dia lunch­eon, since the pre­vi­ous week Perry had caused a mini-tem­pest by com­par­ing ho­mo­sexu­al­ity to al­co­hol­ism at an event in San Fran­cisco. When a re­port­er coyly broached the sub­ject by ask­ing what sorts of is­sues Perry con­siders “a dis­trac­tion,” the gov­ernor dove right in, cit­ing his San Fran­cisco gaffe as Ex­hib­it A. (“I stepped right in it!”) When pressed, at the lunch­eon and else­where, on wheth­er he con­siders ho­mo­sexu­al­ity a dis­order, Perry re­peatedly main­tained that his per­son­al views are not per­tin­ent, that de­cisions on gay rights should be left to the states, and that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has far more press­ing crises to con­front.

While this line may play well with liber­tari­ans and mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, the party base in­cludes a heap of val­ues voters who have vowed not to be taken for gran­ted. Dur­ing his vis­it to the Pal­metto State, I poin­ted out to the gov­ernor that many, many of these folks live in early-vot­ing states such as Iowa and South Car­o­lina. He seemed un­per­turbed. “A lot of folks know people’s re­cords,” he said with an easy smile. “My re­cord’s pretty clear. I’m a so­cial con­ser­vat­ive. But it’s not where I need to be spend­ing my time if I’m pres­id­ent of the United States—if that’s the pro­ject I’m gonna be work­ing on. It shouldn’t be. Our can­did­ate I don’t think should be bogged down with is­sues that are not on the front burn­er of what’s fa­cing this coun­try. And what’s fa­cing this coun­try right now is an eco­nomy that is very slug­gish, that has a growth rate that this year may be zero. And for­eign policy that’s gonna take us years to re­pair.”

Whatever Perry’s per­son­al be­liefs, this is a far cry from the cul­ture war­ri­or of 2011 who ran a Decem­ber ad in Iowa lament­ing, “There’s something wrong in this coun­try when gays can serve openly in the mil­it­ary, but our kids can’t openly cel­eb­rate Christ­mas or pray in school.”

Perry meets with loc­al party act­iv­ists last month in Al­gona, Iowa. (Charlie Neiber­gall/AP)Shift­ing the terms of dis­cus­sion serves a couple of use­ful pur­poses for Perry. First, he sees Texas’s roar­ing eco­nomy as his greatest selling point, and he in­tends to take full cred­it. He’s boiled the state’s busi­ness-friendly cli­mate down to a four-point laun­dry list, which he can ef­fi­ciently tick through at stop after stop: “low taxes, a reg­u­lat­ory policy that is fair and pre­dict­able, a leg­al sys­tem that does not al­low for over-su­ing, and ac­count­able pub­lic schools.” From this them­at­ic base, he can elab­or­ate as much or as little as the par­tic­u­lar audi­ence re­quires.

Fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans agree that the more Perry can keep the dis­cus­sion fo­cused on the eco­nomy, the bet­ter off he is. “Rick Perry is the gold stand­ard,” gushes Flor­ida Gov. Rick Scott of his fel­low gov­ernor’s eco­nom­ic policies. (Scott is an un­abashed Perry aco­lyte.) “If you look at his track re­cord, it’s one of the best, if not the best, in the coun­try.” Says former Bush press sec­ret­ary Ari Fleis­cher: “He’s got a strong re­cord, es­pe­cially on eco­nom­ics, job cre­ation, and growth.”

More broadly, Perry seems to re­cog­nize that he no longer has a shot at be­ing the row­di­est, most ideo­lo­gic­ally pristine con­ser­vat­ive on the block, or even from his own home state. The ab­so­lut­ists are now swoon­ing over new­er mod­els such as Cruz and, in a slightly quir­ki­er vein, Rand Paul. Perry is neither pure enough nor fresh enough to com­pete with such shiny new pen­nies. In Texas, he placed fourth in the pres­id­en­tial straw poll at this year’s GOP con­ven­tion. (Cruz crushed, with 43 per­cent of the vote.) As The Texas Tribune‘s Ross Ram­sey tells me, “Cruz has tapped that vein of pop­u­list, middle-fin­ger polit­ics.”

Perry, by con­trast, talks a lot these days—somberly and with an al­most pat­ron­iz­ing de­lib­er­ate­ness—about ex­per­i­ence, and ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence to be pre­cise. “I think we’ve seen a pres­id­ent who’s in­ex­per­i­enced be­ing an ex­ec­ut­ive,” he tells me. “He’s nev­er been an ex­ec­ut­ive of any­thing. He was in the Illinois state Sen­ate and the U.S. Sen­ate long enough to find out where bath­rooms are, but not long enough to really know how pro­cess works.” Amer­ic­ans, Perry says con­fid­ently, are ready for someone with a little more season­ing. “I don’t think they want to take a chance on an­oth­er Barack Obama.”

His mes­sage seems tailored to reach non-Obama-haters—the kind of voters who will need someone to vote for if Jeb Bush doesn’t run.

He still tosses out the oc­ca­sion­al red-meat phrase like “im­per­i­al pres­id­ency,” and he has been par­tic­u­larly harsh about the bor­der crisis. In­creas­ingly, however, his mes­sage seems tailored to reach non-Obama-haters—the kind of voters who will need someone to vote for if Jeb Bush doesn’t run. Perry mused to the crowd at the St. Re­gis, “I bet if we went around the table, many of you would say that this pres­id­ent hasn’t spent that much time on Cap­it­ol Hill try­ing to find solu­tions.” Obama’s lack of “dip­lo­mat­ic” or “in­ter­per­son­al” skills is a cri­tique Perry floats fre­quently—and one he could have pulled straight from the note­book of Maur­een Dowd or Bob Wood­ward.

Fur­ther ap­peal­ing to voters weary of par­tis­an war­fare, Perry stresses that polit­ic­al lead­ers should have a “civil,” “thought­ful,” even “win­some” con­ver­sa­tion about the chal­lenges fa­cing this na­tion. (“Win­some” is a fa­vor­ite word of his, typ­ic­ally dropped in­to con­ver­sa­tion with a wink­ing smile, lest you worry he’s get­ting too earn­est.) He boasts of hav­ing teamed up with Demo­crats on vari­ous is­sues over the years, such as the es­tab­lish­ment of drug courts and, more re­cently, an ef­fort to com­bat sex-traf­fick­ing. And des­pite Re­pub­lic­ans’ strangle­hold on Texas gov­ern­ment, Perry in­sists he still had to learn how to horse-trade. “On any sub­stant­ive mat­ters, I’m not sure I ever got a full loaf,” he in­sists to me in South Car­o­lina. “I’m not sure I ever got everything I wanted. But I knew how to ne­go­ti­ate up to get­ting something. And I’d rather have a half loaf than no loaf.” On some level, the very no­tion of the com­bat­ive Texas gov­ernor as a bi­par­tis­an uniter is laugh­able. Then again, the GOP bell curve cur­rently fea­tures Cruz and a siz­able con­tin­gent of House mem­bers who view any com­prom­ise what­so­ever as tan­tamount to treas­on.

In ven­ue after ven­ue, Perry as­serts that “gov­ern­ment has a role.” He cheers pub­lic-private part­ner­ships and, un­like many in his party, sees the Ex­port-Im­port Bank as vi­tal in pro­mot­ing Amer­ic­an in­terests abroad. At every op­por­tun­ity, the gov­ernor draws a sharp dis­tinc­tion between lead­ers like him­self, who have been re­spons­ible for get­ting stuff done, and Cap­it­ol Hill talk­ers such as Paul and, of course, Cruz.

The sen­at­or is clearly a sore spot for the gov­ernor. When his name is men­tioned, Perry’s face erupts in a large, dys­peptic smile. The two Tex­ans have their share of elect­or­al bag­gage (in his 2012 Sen­ate race, Cruz beat Perry’s can­did­ate, Lt. Gov. Dav­id Dewhurst), made heav­ier by the fact that Cruz en­joys tak­ing the oc­ca­sion­al poke at Perry, and vice versa. When asked in May about his gov­ernor’s job-cre­ation mes­sage, Cruz re­spon­ded, “Noth­ing makes me cra­zi­er than politi­cians who run around talk­ing about the jobs they cre­ated. Politi­cians are very good at killing jobs, but they don’t cre­ate jobs.”

Sen. Ted Cruz at the 2014 Re­pub­lic­an Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence in New Or­leans. (Justin Sul­li­van/Getty Im­ages)Asked about the com­ment, Perry says, “I al­ways give people the be­ne­fit of the doubt.” But the sen­at­or’s cri­ti­cism, he says, is a mis­in­ter­pret­a­tion of his mes­sage—which he’s pretty sure Cruz knows. “Ted and I have nev­er ac­tu­ally sat down and had this con­ver­sa­tion. But my hope is—and I’d be happy to do it, we just don’t see each oth­er that of­ten—that he would agree that gov­ern­ment can be either an im­ped­i­ment to or it can be a pro­moter of a cli­mate that al­lows people to risk cap­it­al. I don’t get con­fused at all. I don’t think I’ve ever done it—and if I have it’s been an over­sight—but I don’t think I ever got up and said, I cre­ated X num­ber of jobs. I talk about Texas. In Texas we cre­ated. And it is a part­ner­ship.”

More vex­ing still may be the way Cruz has bumped Perry from atop the Texas polit­ic­al food chain. “Cruz is the de facto fig­ure­head if not the op­er­a­tion­al lead­er of the party,” says James Hen­son, dir­ect­or of the Texas Polit­ics Pro­ject at the Uni­versity of Texas (Aus­tin). “In Texas, Perry is sort of the Re­pub­lic­an Party of four years ago.” Asked about Cruz’s “It Boy” status, the gov­ernor ra­di­ates con­des­cen­sion. “We all get our 15 seconds of fame,” he coolly re­spon­ded at the St. Re­gis, when ques­tioned about the le­gis­lat­or’s im­pact on Texas polit­ics. Sug­gest­ing that it’s “a little bit early” to as­sess the im­port of “a ju­ni­or sen­at­or” and that we should re­vis­it the situ­ation “in eight years,” Perry com­pared Cruz to the late Demo­crat­ic Gov. Ann Richards: be­loved but not in­flu­en­tial. Ouch.

Perry weaves even his 2012 flameout in­to his ar­gu­ment that voters ought to value his ex­per­i­ence. “I’m glad I ran,” he told the Belt­way re­port­ers, in­sist­ing that the blood­let­ting left him bet­ter pre­pared than all these new kids on the block. In South Car­o­lina, he makes the case to me that even the gant­let of de­bates—which he agrees was “god-aw­ful”—was “a good, im­port­ant pro­cess.”

“I ac­tu­ally think I got to be a pass­able de­bater be­fore the pro­cess was over,” he tells me, not­ing that “you can’t do something 18 times” without at least some im­prove­ment. “The last five or six de­bates were pretty de­cent,” he sug­gests. “I was com­pet­it­ive and gave as good as I took. The early ones, not so much. I read­ily ad­mit I wasn’t pre­pared.” When I ask if po­ten­tially run­ning against an­oth­er Tex­an like Cruz, or per­haps Rand Paul, with his fath­er’s Texas donor base, could com­plic­ate his ef­forts to gain trac­tion, Perry de­murs, mak­ing the broad ob­ser­va­tion, “Run­ning for the pres­id­ency of the United States is com­plic­ated. If you have nev­er done it be­fore, you will find out.”

ONE PERRY AS­SET that was largely ob­scured in 2012 is just how charm­ing he can be one-on-one. By en­ter­ing the race so late, he didn’t leave him­self much time for hanging out with voters in places like Ce­dar Rap­ids or Manchester. In ad­di­tion, Perry’s en­tire de­mean­or last time, com­bined with his hard-right polit­ics, made him come across as some com­bin­a­tion of angry, awk­ward, and out of it. “He was not him­self,” says Vander Plaats, who blames the gov­ernor’s cam­paign team for giv­ing him bad coun­sel. Bill Miller agrees: “He was nev­er on his game.” The Perry that Tex­ans have long known, by con­trast, is a mas­ter of re­tail polit­ics, a guy who can stand around gab­bing with voters all day and who in­ter­acts with people in a way that is a bit goofy but also en­dear­ing. It’s a vastly dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al style than what we’ve grown ac­cus­tomed to from politi­cians such as Obama, Rom­ney, or Hil­lary Clin­ton.

It’s rare to hear a politi­cian speak bluntly about his own polit­ic­al fail­ures, yet Perry is ag­gress­ive in own­ing his.

In South Car­o­lina, I tag along with Perry to a fun­draiser cookout for Rep. Mick Mul­vaney, a Re­pub­lic­an who rep­res­ents the state’s north­ern, rur­al 5th Dis­trict. Be­fore the event, Perry, Mul­vaney, the con­gress­man’s wife, Pam, and a half-dozen mem­bers of the gov­ernor’s team are kick­ing back in a con­fer­ence room in­side the swank, sprawl­ing headquar­ters of the City of Light Cath­ol­ic min­is­tries, where the event is be­ing held. At one end of the long, glossy wooden table, Perry’s people sit talk­ing polit­ics with Mul­vaney. At the oth­er, the gov­ernor is huddled up with Pam, swap­ping stor­ies and pho­tos of kids (Perry has a grown son and daugh­ter), dogs (he has four), guns (he digs them; his wife, An­ita, doesn’t), his 1-year-old grand­daugh­ter, and the un­com­fort­ably stiff cow­boy boots Pam is sport­ing, cus­tom made from a gat­or she shot while in Louisi­ana.

Next thing you know, one of Pam’s boots is off her foot and in the gov­ernor’s hands. (Perry him­self has sworn off cow­boy boots in de­fer­ence to his tem­pera­ment­al spine.) Perry flexes the sole, then sticks his face down in­side the shiny black foot­wear and in­hales deeply. “I just love the smell of new leath­er!” he an­nounces hap­pily. He pauses, looks over at me, and asks, “This is go­ing to wind up in your piece, isn’t it? ‘He likes to sniff wo­men’s shoes!’ ” The gov­ernor chuckles, then re­sumes his dis­cus­sion with Pam about the best way to break in boots. (Short an­swer: You just gotta wear ‘em.)

Perry is prone to sud­den out­bursts of en­thu­si­asm or sur­prise. On our second day on the road, head­ing in­to the of­fice of a loc­al real-es­tate agent, I joked to him that I’d double-caf­fein­ated in pre­par­a­tion for our in­ter­view. “Oh!” he ex­claimed, and his eyes popped wide as he spun around to dash back to the id­ling white Sub­urb­an for his for­got­ten iced cof­fee, in the pro­cess trip­ping over a con­crete park­ing block and nearly tak­ing a nose dive. (His press sec­ret­ary looked ready to faint.) Later, dur­ing our tour of a med­ic­al lab, Perry came dash­ing back through the crowd to find me and en­thuse that this was ex­actly the kind of mind-blow­ing in­nov­a­tion that makes Amer­ica the greatest na­tion on earth. And at any giv­en mo­ment, the gov­ernor might whip out his phone and snap pho­tos of whatever tickles his fancy. “Are you Cath­ol­ic?” he gushed as we passed a statue of St. Mi­chael on our way in­to City of Light. “Neither am I,” he beamed, “but St. Mi­chael has al­ways been one of my fa­vor­ites!”

He is also will­ing to get per­son­al in a way that few politi­cians risk but that many voters crave. At one point, while dis­cuss­ing the joys and per­ils of par­ent­ing, he went off on a tan­gent about how, upon leav­ing the Air Force, he moved back home with his par­ents just four days shy of his 27th birth­day. Re­turn­ing to his child­hood room, frozen in time, was “an eer­ie mo­ment,” the gov­ernor re­calls—one neither he nor his dad handled well. With his col­lege de­gree and mil­it­ary stripes, young Rick thought he knew everything. “And my dad thought I was that”—Perry’s voice drops to a stage whis­per—”dumb-ass 17-year-old who had left 10 years pri­or.” It took six months of “fric­tion” to make the trans­ition, re­calls Perry. Then he ar­rives at the punch line: “About six months ago, our daugh­ter moved back in with us. Twenty-sev­en years old. And it really didn’t dawn on me un­til we had about our second clash­ing, and I was just like, ‘I’m ready to strangle her,’ and she’s like”—here he makes a vul­gar ges­ture—” ‘Up yours, old man!’ that “… she is at ex­actly the same stage of her life as I was.” Talk about a story the par­ents of today’s boom­er­ang gen­er­a­tion can re­late to.

Click to see the full cov­er (Char­is Tsevis)

In a dreary land­scape of fo­cus-grouped, poll-tested, pre­pack­aged can­did­ates, Perry stands out. At the Mul­vaney meet-and-greet, Joan Dant and her grand­daugh­ter Mi­chaela Sims raved about Perry’s hon­esty, his “down-ho­me­ness,” and his self-de­prec­at­ing hu­mor. That hu­mor is prov­ing cru­cial in help­ing Perry deal with his 2012 de­bacle. One of his fa­vor­ite laugh lines on the stump in­volves his short-lived front-run­ner status: “You all may not re­mem­ber this, but at one point, I was ahead in the polls.” Pause for ef­fect. “Those were the best three hours of my life.” It’s rare to hear a politi­cian speak bluntly about his own polit­ic­al fail­ures, yet Perry is ag­gress­ive in own­ing his. When I point out that this seems to play well with voters, he smiles. “But it’s true! It has the ad­ded be­ne­fit of be­ing true.”

Also work­ing to his ad­vant­age are, let’s face it, Perry’s good looks. He’s got the rug­gedly hand­some face, the slightly wicked smile, and enough sil­ver creep­ing in­to that hair to make him look dis­tin­guished. One na­tion­al fun­draiser re­called see­ing him for the first time at a Re­pub­lic­an event in 2011: “I am telling you, the ladies there—it was like watch­ing Tom Jones. You re­mem­ber the sing­er? Wo­men would throw their panties on the stage. There is a pher­omone on him wo­men re­act to.”

Wheth­er or not you find him good-look­ing, it’s tough not to at least find him per­son­ally charm­ing. “Rick is just a really likable guy. He’s real down to earth,” says Mul­vaney, who backed him last time but who stresses he has not yet en­dorsed for 2016. “One of the at­trac­tions that sep­ar­ated him from folks like Rom­ney and Gin­grich when he first got in­to the race in 2012 was he had a broad ap­peal to folks. He still does.”

FOR ALL HE’S done to re­make his im­age, though, Perry is still dig­ging out of a Mari­ana Trench-like hole. And it’s hard to find a Re­pub­lic­an play­er or polit­ic­al watch­er who gives his comeback much of a chance. Some dip­lo­mat­ic­ally couch their doubts in nev­er-say-nev­er caveats. “I am very hes­it­ant to dis­miss any­body’s chances out of hand,” ob­serves GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres. “That said, you nev­er get a second chance to make a first im­pres­sion.” Oth­er folks use harsh­er terms such as “crazy,” “bizarre,” and “de­lu­sion­al.” Even if he man­ages to get past the “oops,” the gov­ernor oc­cu­pies an awk­ward, in-between space, Hen­son says: “He wasn’t suc­cess­ful enough in the last cycle to be the guy ‘wait­ing in the wings’ like Mc­Cain and Rom­ney were. Yet he’s not in­sur­gent enough now to be the in­sur­gent.”

“He wasn’t suc­cess­ful enough in the last cycle to be the guy ‘wait­ing in the wings’ like Mc­Cain and Rom­ney were. Yet he’s not in­sur­gent enough now to be the in­sur­gent.”

Some pos­it that Perry isn’t really aim­ing for the White House, but in­stead is hop­ing to bet­ter po­s­i­tion him­self for whatever op­por­tun­it­ies might arise in a Re­pub­lic­an ad­min­is­tra­tion. “There’s some re­hab value to simply be­ing in the pre-can­did­ate pool, if you will,” Hen­son notes. Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka has sug­ges­ted Perry “would be per­fect for the job” of VPOTUS. The gov­ernor, however, avoids such spe­cif­ics. “Even if I don’t run,” he tells me of his pres­id­en­tial crash course, “I’ll be a bet­ter per­son, be­cause I want to be en­gaged.”

Ari Fleis­cher points out that “if he starts early enough, Perry can rem­edy a lot of the mis­takes he made last time un­der the pres­sure of be­ing the in­stant front-run­ner. He also now be­ne­fits from low ex­pect­a­tions.” Moreover, the on­go­ing bor­der crisis has giv­en Perry a boost in re­cent days, earn­ing him plaudits from Belt­way con­ser­vat­ives and giv­ing him mul­tiple op­por­tun­it­ies to stress his se­cure-the-bor­der-first mes­sage to the party’s base.

Still, it’s a troub­ling sign, say ob­serv­ers both in and out­side Texas, that Perry has fallen off the radar of the money­men. “He’s not even on the al­tern­ate list,” the na­tion­al fun­draiser says. As for Lone Star donors, says Bill Miller, “I’m not hear­ing any­thing. Ser­i­ously. That’s bad for him.” He does al­low that Perry has enough rich friends in the state to col­lect suf­fi­cient “gas money” to “start his en­gine.” But every­one agrees that the gov­ernor will need to start look­ing like a win­ner be­fore the spig­ot opens up. “It’s al­ways dif­fi­cult to go back to donors and get them to re­in­vest in you when you dis­ap­point them,” ex­plains Dave Car­ney. Says Ayres, “They don’t give their money if they don’t think you’ve got a chance.”

It’s also easy for one of Perry’s strengths—his af­fable, cas­u­al per­son­al style—to slide in­to weak­ness, since it can play in­to the ex­ist­ing nar­rat­ive about his lack of in­tel­li­gence. Once set, such polit­ic­al ca­ri­ca­tures are hard to shed—Al Gore was stiff, John Kerry was a flip-flop­per, George H.W. Bush was out of touch—which means that, go­ing for­ward, every­one will be on high alert for Perry to say something “stu­pid.” Any time he for­gets a date, mis­states a budget num­ber, or veers off mes­sage will be spun as fur­ther proof that he lacks the dis­cip­line or brains to be the nom­in­ee.

You can tell that, even as he de­ploys his in­nate, some­what free-wheel­ing charm, Perry is also mind­ful of the need to tread care­fully. Dur­ing mul­tiple speeches and in­ter­views on the road, he broke off mid-sen­tence to ask his press sec­ret­ary to double-check the facts and fig­ures that he was about to drop in­to the dis­cus­sion. (“I want to make sure I get this right!”) When wad­ing in­to even re­motely sens­it­ive top­ics, he pauses to search aloud for the right word or phrase (for in­stance, cast­ing about be­fore set­tling on “eco­nom­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged” to de­scribe poor chil­dren in his state). It’s an un­der­stand­able im­pulse. No one knows bet­ter than Perry the per­ils of a thought­less com­ment or sloppy word. On the oth­er hand, too much self-edit­ing and second-guess­ing risk mak­ing him look un­sure of him­self, or ren­der­ing him awk­ward, stil­ted, or ar­ti­fi­cial, wip­ing out that most neb­u­lous of polit­ic­al as­sets, his au­then­ti­city. It is a tricky line to toe, and one that the gov­ernor can’t help but stumble over now and again.

PERRY IS SCHED­ULED  to de­part the Mul­vaney event early to fly back to Aus­tin. (He is testi­fy­ing the next day at a Home­land Se­cur­ity field hear­ing on the bor­der crisis.) In a large din­ing hall packed with voters feast­ing on bur­gers, hot dogs, and chips, the gov­ernor kicks off his ad­dress with a nod to his hosts, talk­ing about how much he ad­mires the Mul­vaneys, and how lucky the crowd is to have Mick as their con­gress­man. He even gives a spe­cial shout-out to Mrs. Mul­vaney’s new boots. From there, Perry rips through his jobs, jobs, jobs mes­sage, tak­ing the usu­al de­tours to slap the ad­min­is­tra­tion on im­mig­ra­tion and for­eign policy. The speech is well re­ceived, though talk­ing with the crowd af­ter­ward it’s hard to tell wheth­er Perry has won any new con­verts. Some people love him, some are un­der­whelmed, and some like him but doubt the chat­ter­ing class will give him a fight­ing chance after last time.

Prob­ably the biggest down­side to his per­form­ance: When gush­ing about his friends the Mul­vaneys, the gov­ernor re­peatedly re­ferred to Pam as “Tammy.” That slipup had some in the crowd chuck­ling after his de­par­ture. But the path to re­demp­tion was bound to come with the oc­ca­sion­al pothole. This time, at least, Rick Perry has giv­en him­self a couple of ex­tra years to smooth out the bumps.