Rick Perry Is Giving Himself a Makeover

The Texas governor has a new pitch to conservative voters that makes it clear he's not just a folksier version of Mitt Romney


LAS VEGAS -- A new Rick Perry spoke here Wednesday.

The Texas governor jogged onto the stage and unveiled an energetic new pitch at the Western Republican Leadership Conference -- a far more explicit appeal to the GOP's conservative base than he's made in the past.

"I am not the candidate of the Establishment," he proclaimed. "You won't hear a lot of shape-shifting nuance from me. I'm going to give the American people a huge, big ol' helping of unbridled truth."

Perry said he would propose ditching the tax code in favor of a flat tax. He pledged to "barnstorm" the country advocating a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He said he would "end earmarks for good" and "reject the cynical politics of the nanny state."

Up to now, Perry has trusted Republican primary voters to figure out for themselves that he represents the conservative wing of the party, and contrast that with Mitt Romney's moderation. But that hasn't been working, as his slump in the polls has shown.

By sleepwalking through his first four debates, Perry allowed himself to be defined by the other candidates -- and they were glad to oblige. They painted him as a complacent, bleeding-heart politician with a record of coddling illegal immigrants, forcing "little girls" -- to use Michele Bachmann's description -- to get unnecessary vaccines and doling out favors to his lobbyist pals. In his opponents' telling, he was like Romney, only worse: not a conservative, not an outsider, not a fighter, not a break from business as usual.

The moment that outraged conservatives the most: Under attack for allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at Texas universities, Perry said those who disagreed didn't "have a heart." Conservatives rose up to retort that they get called heartless quite enough by liberals, thank you very much. They didn't want to hear it from one of their own.

In his fifth debate Tuesday night, Perry began to show another side.

He went after Romney with a personal zeal, attacking not just his policy positions but his character. He was mean. He got booed. It was exactly what he needed to erase the memory of the man who called members of his own party heartless.

Perry appears to have realized that if he wants to win over the majority of the Republican primary electorate that's not lining up behind Romney, he needs to make it clear he speaks for them.

They don't want a folksier, slightly more fiscally conservative version of Romney. They don't believe tacking to the middle equals electability -- look how that worked out for John McCain. They want someone who channels their visceral anger at the entire system, makes brash, politically-incorrect proposals and refuses to compromise. And if Herman Cain is the closest thing to that, they'll take him.

"The American people are not going to trim around the edges when it comes to 2012," Perry said Wednesday. "They are going to turn Washington inside out."

He closed his speech by pumping his fist by the side of the podium: "Let's do it! Let's roll!"

Perry has a long way to go to win back Republican voters disappointed by his candidacy so far. Finally, he seems to be speaking their language.

Image credit: Reuters/Steve Marcus

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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