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Meet the New Rick Perry—Is He the Same as the Old Rick Perry?

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.

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.

Presented by

Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a senior writer for National Journal.

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