In a field as crowded as Republicans' 2016 presidential scramble, a candidate needs defining characteristics to stand out from the pack. It's a challenge for any candidate, and an especially difficult one for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry: The race has other former governors, other social conservatives, other fiscal conservatives, and other repeat presidential candidates—and in each area, a different contender is already making a strong play to capture that segment of the Republican electorate. And as it stands now, on a national stage, he's probably best remembered for his "oops" moment when, during a 2012 presidential primary debate, he forgot the third federal agency he was pledging to eliminate.
But there is one item in Perry's background that makes him a rarity in the presidential race: his military service.
Perry served in the Air Force from 1972 to 1977, flying a transport aircraft (the C-130) in noncombat situations. Beyond Perry, Sen. Lindsey Graham is the only other Republican of the 16 or so who are already running or likely to run for president who has served in the military—a dearth of military candidates made all the more surprising by the fact that since 1952, every Republican presidential nominee (save for Mitt Romney in 2012) had served.
Perry has put his time in the Air Force at the center of his 2016 run. He has emphasized that service and made support for veterans a standard part of his stump speeches and conversations with voters over the past two years. And now, as he opens his campaign with an announcement Thursday and visits to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina in the following days, he's surrounding himself with high-profile veterans and their families—including those made famous by the movies Lone Survivor and American Sniper.
Perry's time in the Air Force has always played an important role in shaping his worldview during his political career, but he didn't emphasize it as much during his short-lived 2012 presidential campaign. His advisers chalk that up in large part to a lack of preparation, saying Perry rushed into the last presidential race without a clear game plan.
"I don't really think he got much of an opportunity to tell his story during the last run. He jumped in, he was at the top of the polls for the three most glorious hours of his life, and then made a lot of mistakes," said Jeff Miller, who will serve as Perry's campaign manager. "I think this time, he's had a lot of opportunities to begin educating the American people on who Rick Perry is and what his whole track record is, from his service in the military, to his support of the veteran community, to what he's done to turn Texas into an economic engine."
Coupled with his 14-year tenure as Texas governor, during which he commanded the state's National Guard, Perry's military experience plays into a broader picture he hopes to paint of himself as the most qualified candidate to serve as commander in chief.
"He just doesn't have to give grand speeches," Miller said. "He actually has had to deliver."
Perry's team believes that his military background will be especially pertinent this election as foreign policy continues to rise to the forefront for GOP voters. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in late April found that 27 percent of Republicans nationally said national security and terrorism should be a top priority for the federal government—more than any other issue.
"With the rise of ISIS, the ongoing crises in the Middle East, national security and national defense will likely have a bigger role in this presidential campaign than any time since right after 9/11. So that makes Governor Perry's military experience, his leadership of the Texas National Guard, and issues like border security very relevant and important to his campaign," said Ray Sullivan, a former chief of staff to Perry who is cochairing the super PAC supporting his candidacy. "It is another way for him to talk about his record and vision, but also differentiate himself from an increasingly crowded field."
However, that record and vision isn't resonating with voters yet, as he's polling in the low single-digits in most national surveys. The RealClearPolitics polling average puts Perry at 10th place in the Republican field, meaning he'd just barely make the cut for the first presidential debate of the primary season.
Perry's aides are shrugging off his current standing in the polls, asserting that the governor will begin to improve his numbers once he officially enters the race and shares his story. And Perry is relying on veterans to play an important role in doing that.
A handful of military veterans will join Perry on the trail in Texas and Iowa as he kicks off his campaign over the next several days. One of those is former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, who wrote a memoir called Lone Survivor that was adapted into a movie in 2013. Since the two met in 2007, Perry has served as a father figure to Luttrell as he's readjusted to life outside of the military. Joining them this week is Taya Kyle, the widow of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who was portrayed in the 2014 film American Sniper.
On top of Perry's announcement speech on Thursday, Luttrell, Kyle, and several other veterans will accompany Perry at two motorcycle-themed events in Iowa on Saturday. One is Sen. Joni Ernst's inaugural "Roast and Ride," which will feature six other GOP presidential hopefuls. The other is a fundraiser—dubbed the "Ride with Rick"—not for Perry's campaign, but for the Puppy Jake Foundation, a charity that provides service dogs for wounded veterans. Perry is also bringing Luttrell and a number of other veterans, like Medal of Honor recipient Mike Thornton, with him as he travels to New Hampshire on Sunday and South Carolina on Monday, a visit that will include a stop at the USS Yorktown.
The veterans and military families Perry has befriended over the years are expected to lend a hand throughout the campaign at rallies and one-on-one meetings with voters.
"For us, this isn't theory. We know the importance of having somebody in the White House who understands what we go through and that we trust implicitly," said Dan Moran, a retired Marine and longtime Perry supporter. "That network is there ready to support him and ready to have a real commander in chief in the Oval Office."
And for those who aren't veterans, Perry's allies think that putting these relationships he has built on display will help voters more easily relate to the governor.
"It's a good story to tell. It helps people to better understand him," said Henry Barbour, a longtime friend of Perry's. "And he needs that. He certainly needs to grab people's attention to be successful."
Perry's military chops are also helping him win support in the world of fundraising, where he is facing fierce competition for dollars from other presidential contenders with Texas ties, including Sen. Ted Cruz and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Judith DuBose, a veteran from Houston who was a bundler for Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, said Perry's military experience is the main reason she's backing him in 2016.
"I was really looking at Ted Cruz. I've known both men. I've met with both men and I've talked with both men," DuBose said. "What made me make the decision is that Rick Perry has a veteran policy and a veteran mission."
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Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.