As he prepares to enter the Republican field, Rick Perry's appeal is clear. So is his one glaring weakness.
HOUSTON -- There's a debate in Texas over whether or not Governor Rick Perry's prayer rally before 30,000 worshippers in a football stadium last Saturday was conceived to help launch his presidential candidacy. But there's little dispute about his prospects should he decide to enter the Republican field, as expected.
Most people here think he'll win.
Perry's appeal to Republicans is not hard to fathom. It has three distinct parts. The first, as the prayer rally demonstrates, is an overt religiosity that is sure to excite the social conservatives in the Republican base who feel neglected by the unrelenting focus on the economy. Perry casts the issue as a crisis of faith. "Lord,'' he told the crowd, "we see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government and, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.'' That message should resonate across the South and in states like Iowa, where religious conservatives dominate the party.
Perry's second strength is his big appeal to the Tea Party movement. Long before most politicians grasped its significance, he had made himself an ally. In truth, his populist West Texas conservatism with its native distrust of Washington prefigured much of what the Tea Party has come to stand for. Perry has strengthened the connection by adopting the constitutional fetishism that is a hallmark of the movement. In his new book, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington,'' he says he'd like to repeal the 16th and 17th Amendments; his fixation on the 10th Amendment is already legendary. Though often ridiculed for suggesting, in 2009, that federal oppression might cause Texas to secede from the United States, that sentiment helped him shore up conservative support and come from behind to trounce his 2010 primary opponent, the popular Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
What distinguishes him from Michele Bachmann and other Tea Party favorites is his record of governance, which constitutes the third part of his appeal. Bachmann says much that excites right-wing conservatives, but her record is laughably thin. Perry is the nation's longest-serving governor, of a big state that, relative to everywhere else, is doing pretty well. A study by the Dallas Federal Reserve found that 37 percent of all jobs created nationwide since mid-2009 were in Texas. (Although the state also has considerable poverty and the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country.) When not leading prayer rallies, Perry is most eager to tout this aspect of his governorship, and will base candidacy on the claim that he can do the same from the White House.
Perry's liabilities are also plain to see. If scientists set out to build the perfect GOP candidate, the first thing they'd rule out is making him a Texas governor. And Perry's brand of conservatism is more brash, divisive, and extreme than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. On Saturday, one of the pastors at his prayer rally characterized him as "Bush on steroids.''
Rather than try to mask or downplay what could be a deadly liability, Perry chooses to embrace it. As Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker has pointed out, "Perry wears more cowboy gear than a 6-year-old boy on Halloween.'' Even Republicans inclined to overlook the obvious similarities with Bush might be deterred by the knowledge that voters in a general election likely would not.
But in the short term, Perry's unapologetic embrace of a confrontational right-wing conservatism should serve him well. In almost every particular, it will stand him in vivid contrast to the cautious, considerably more malleable conservatism of the current front-runner, Mitt Romney. Perry is as temperamentally well-suited to the current political moment as anyone in the race, and maybe in the country. That's a big reason why Washington insiders already regard him as the greatest threat to Romney.
Perry still has a long way to go. He has never run outside Texas. As a national candidate, he's entirely unproven and will have to establish himself. He is said to dislike the press corps, and has largely avoided it in his own state. But he won't escape scrutiny and may not stand up to it.
On the other hand, the Texas wisdom holds that it is unwise to bet against him: Perry has won every race he's ever run.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.
Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters