Back in 1992, a young Texas agricultural commissioner named Rick Perry understood the value of having George W. Bush, a rising star in the state, as a political mentor and friend. The two worshipped at the same church, their children attended the same schools, and Mr Bush and close adviser Karl Rove were critical in helping Mr Perry advance his political career.
Today, almost 20 years later, Mr Perry, who has become the longest-serving governor in Texas history, is trying to run away from the shadow of the unpopular former president just as fast as he is trying to replace a newly vulnerable Barack Obama in the White House.
With an air of Texas swagger that may feel uncomfortably familiar to many American voters, Mr Perry – a former rancher and US Air Force pilot from west Texas – is expected to declare his presidential ambitions on Saturday at a conference of conservative bloggers in South Carolina. It marks the debut of a candidate who has the credentials to win over hardline Tea Party Republicans and an economic record that could make President Obama sweat as his standing shrinks against a backdrop of high unemployment and gridlock in Washington. Timed with Machiavellian precision, it will also steal media attention from the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, traditionally a barometer of candidates’ standing.
But he has to answer two critical questions: is the nation – and indeed the Republican Party – ready to be led by another Christian from Texas? Also notwithstanding the hunger on the right for a champion, could he be just too outspoken for the nation? Not that he feels he has anything to hide. He wrote in his recent book Fed Up! that he is just the sort of man people like to elect. “You know the type the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning, packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets, and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter’s dog.”
Unlike Mr Bush, who was born to an elite family and had an Ivy League education, Mr Perry, 61, has humbler origins. He was born on a tenant farm in Paint Creek, a tiny rural town in the West Texas plains, to a family of ranchers. He attended Texas A&M University, where he earned Cs in reproduction in farm animals, animal breeding and genetics classes, and a D in feeds and feeding. He graduated with a degree in animal sciences.
After college, he joined the US Air Force in 1972 and flew cargo aircraft in the US, Middle East and Europe, then returned to Paint Creek to farm cotton with his father before entering politics. After a five-year stint as a Democrat in the Texas House of Representatives, in 1989 he joined the Republican party.
Although people who know him describe him in the affable way Mr Bush was once described – a plain-spoken man who is comfortable in his skin – he is known for his combative side. In April 2009 he told a Tea Party rally that Texas might “secede” from the union because of tax policies in Washington. The remark thrilled Republican voters but nationally it played poorly.
His faith is an important part of his CV. He grabbed the national spotlight this month when he hosted a prayer rally in Houston that drew some 30,000 Christians. As they swayed with outstretched arms, he prayed for those who had lost jobs and hope. In April, as his state struggled to combat drought and contain wildfires, the governor – a global warming sceptic – sought help from above calling on people of all faiths to pray for rain.
But more than his religious bona fides, which will undoubtedly help him win the support of Christian conservatives, it is the economic “miracle” of Texas that has Republicans excited.“Governor Perry truly has a track record [on jobs] he is going to be running on. And so does President Obama. The difference is that Perry’s is stellar and Obama’s is abysmal,” says Peggy Venable, the Texan director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative activist group.
Since he became governor at the end of 2000, Texas has gained more than 1m jobs. The state accounts for roughly a third of new jobs created since the end of the recession in June 2009. Mr Perry has credited the pro-business climate he claims to have created – low taxes, limited regulation and a high barrier for litigation – as the drivers of growth.
Critics say other factors have boosted Texas that have little to do with Mr Perry including its population growth and high oil prices. The running joke among liberals in Texas is that the only way to tell Mr Perry apart from his predecessor in the governor’s mansion is that Mr Bush was “the smart one”. But there are serious issues beyond the humorous jabs, that could have broad implications for Mr Perry’s candidacy.
Mr Perry’s views about Mr Bush first became public in 2007, when he was seen in a video broadcast on YouTube saying that his predecessor “was never a fiscal conservative”. The comments will be welcomed by fiscal hawks who – in a sign of how the party has shifted to the right – rate Mr Bush’s spending record with the same disgust with which they regard Mr Obama.
In many respects, Mr Perry’s staunch defence of his economic policies and spending cuts encapsulates the differences between him and Mr Bush, and explains why the former is seen as more ideological. Mr Bush won the 2000 election as a “compassionate conservative” who had a record of working with Democrats and courting the large Latino population. “I think Perry would sneer at the term compassionate conservative and get out his red pen and cross out compassionate,” says Harold Cook, a Texan Democratic strategist.
While this will help Mr Perry in the Republican beauty contest it will be a difficult position to navigate opposite Mr Obama when he will need the support of moderate voters. “At some point, if he is successful in the primary, it will be the first time in a decade that Rick Perry has put any thought to communicating with mainstream voters,” says Mr Cook. “No one knows if he is good at that.”
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