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.