Also working to his advantage are, let's face it, Perry's good looks. He's got the ruggedly handsome face, the slightly wicked smile, and enough silver creeping into that hair to make him look distinguished. One national fundraiser recalled seeing him for the first time at a Republican event in 2011: "I am telling you, the ladies there—it was like watching Tom Jones. You remember the singer? Women would throw their panties on the stage. There is a pheromone on him women react to."
Whether or not you find him good-looking, it's tough not to at least find him personally charming. "Rick is just a really likable guy. He's real down to earth," says Mulvaney, who backed him last time but who stresses he has not yet endorsed for 2016. "One of the attractions that separated him from folks like Romney and Gingrich when he first got into the race in 2012 was he had a broad appeal to folks. He still does."
For all he's done to remake his image, though, Perry is still digging out of a Mariana Trench-like hole. And it's hard to find a Republican player or political watcher who gives his comeback much of a chance. Some diplomatically couch their doubts in never-say-never caveats. "I am very hesitant to dismiss anybody's chances out of hand," observes GOP pollster Whit Ayres. "That said, you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Other folks use harsher terms such as "crazy," "bizarre," and "delusional." Even if he manages to get past the "oops," the governor occupies an awkward, in-between space, Henson says: "He wasn't successful enough in the last cycle to be the guy 'waiting in the wings' like McCain and Romney were. Yet he's not insurgent enough now to be the insurgent."
Some posit that Perry isn't really aiming for the White House, but instead is hoping to better position himself for whatever opportunities might arise in a Republican administration. "There's some rehab value to simply being in the pre-candidate pool, if you will," Henson notes. Texas Monthly's Paul Burka has suggested Perry "would be perfect for the job" of VPOTUS. The governor, however, avoids such specifics. "Even if I don't run," he tells me of his presidential crash course, "I'll be a better person, because I want to be engaged."
Ari Fleischer points out that "if he starts early enough, Perry can remedy a lot of the mistakes he made last time under the pressure of being the instant front-runner. He also now benefits from low expectations." Moreover, the ongoing border crisis has given Perry a boost in recent days, earning him plaudits from Beltway conservatives and giving him multiple opportunities to stress his secure-the-border-first message to the party's base.
Still, it's a troubling sign, say observers both in and outside Texas, that Perry has fallen off the radar of the moneymen. "He's not even on the alternate list," the national fundraiser says. As for Lone Star donors, says Bill Miller, "I'm not hearing anything. Seriously. That's bad for him." He does allow that Perry has enough rich friends in the state to collect sufficient "gas money" to "start his engine." But everyone agrees that the governor will need to start looking like a winner before the spigot opens up. "It's always difficult to go back to donors and get them to reinvest in you when you disappoint them," explains Dave Carney. Says Ayres, "They don't give their money if they don't think you've got a chance."
It's also easy for one of Perry's strengths—his affable, casual personal style—to slide into weakness, since it can play into the existing narrative about his lack of intelligence. Once set, such political caricatures are hard to shed—Al Gore was stiff, John Kerry was a flip-flopper, George H.W. Bush was out of touch—which means that, going forward, everyone will be on high alert for Perry to say something "stupid." Any time he forgets a date, misstates a budget number, or veers off message will be spun as further proof that he lacks the discipline or brains to be the nominee.
You can tell that, even as he deploys his innate, somewhat free-wheeling charm, Perry is also mindful of the need to tread carefully. During multiple speeches and interviews on the road, he broke off mid-sentence to ask his press secretary to double-check the facts and figures that he was about to drop into the discussion. ("I want to make sure I get this right!") When wading into even remotely sensitive topics, he pauses to search aloud for the right word or phrase (for instance, casting about before settling on "economically disadvantaged" to describe poor children in his state). It's an understandable impulse. No one knows better than Perry the perils of a thoughtless comment or sloppy word. On the other hand, too much self-editing and second-guessing risk making him look unsure of himself, or rendering him awkward, stilted, or artificial, wiping out that most nebulous of political assets, his authenticity. It is a tricky line to toe, and one that the governor can't help but stumble over now and again.
Perry is scheduled to depart the Mulvaney event early to fly back to Austin. (He is testifying the next day at a Homeland Security field hearing on the border crisis.) In a large dining hall packed with voters feasting on burgers, hot dogs, and chips, the governor kicks off his address with a nod to his hosts, talking about how much he admires the Mulvaneys, and how lucky the crowd is to have Mick as their congressman. He even gives a special shout-out to Mrs. Mulvaney's new boots. From there, Perry rips through his jobs, jobs, jobs message, taking the usual detours to slap the administration on immigration and foreign policy. The speech is well received, though talking with the crowd afterward it's hard to tell whether Perry has won any new converts. Some people love him, some are underwhelmed, and some like him but doubt the chattering class will give him a fighting chance after last time.
Probably the biggest downside to his performance: When gushing about his friends the Mulvaneys, the governor repeatedly referred to Pam as "Tammy." That slipup had some in the crowd chuckling after his departure. But the path to redemption was bound to come with the occasional pothole. This time, at least, Rick Perry has given himself a couple of extra years to smooth out the bumps.