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 Governor 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.
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.
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."