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

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.

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.

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Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a senior writer for National Journal.

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