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

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."

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 Governor 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."

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, Lieutenant Governor 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."

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."

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Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a senior writer for National Journal.

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