The complicated dynamic between Republicans loyal to George W. Bush and those backing the rightwing governor of his adopted state, Rick Perry, was exposed this week as Karl Rove took a public swipe at the presidential hopeful.
The former president’s adviser complained this week that Mr Perry was a “cowboy” who did not appear “presidential”, exposing a deeper concern among the Republican establishment that, if he manages to clinch the Republican nomination, the governor of Texas would be a poor general election candidate against Barack Obama in 2012.
The relationship between Mr Perry and Mr Bush, who preceded Mr Perry in the governor’s mansion, is a long one.
Even before Mr Bush was governor, he and Mr Rove helped Mr Perry rise through the ranks in Texas politics. They encouraged him to abandon the Democratic party early in his career as a state legislator and urged him to run for agricultural commissioner and lieutenant-governor.
Both Mr Bush and Mr Perry cultivated reputations as swaggering Texans. But there were differences, too. Mr Bush, who was born on the east coast to an elite political family, was equally at home among the “country club” set within the Texas Republican party that, some analysts say, has never felt comfortable with Mr Perry.
In 2007, a video emerged on YouTube that caught Mr Perry disparaging his former mentor’s record, saying Mr Bush had never really been a “fiscal conservative”.
Mr Rove, whose frequent appearances on Fox News and column in the Wall Street Journal give him an important outlet to reach Republicans, has not sought to hide his disapproval of Mr Perry, or his wish for more candidates to come forward since the governor announced his White House run on Saturday. His association with Crossroads GPS, an activist group that injected millions of dollars into the 2010 midterm election, also makes him influential.
In June, Mr Rove warned that Republicans ought not to forget that they will need to target voters who elected Mr Obama in 2008 but have shown signs of swinging away from him in 2010: independents, Hispanics, college educated and young voters.
“The Republican party will find it more difficult to gain their support if its nominee adopts a tone that’s harshly negative,” Mr Rove wrote in his column.
It was therefore no surprise that Mr Rove was quick to attack a comment by Mr Perry this week in which he suggested that Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, was a potential traitor.
Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for Mr Bush, said Mr Rove’s rebuke of Mr Perry did not have anything to do with “past issues”. “Karl just calls ‘em like he sees ‘em. I think he believes Governor Perry’s remarks about the Fed were simply problematic and not good politics or good policy for Republicans regaining the presidency.”
Charlie Cook, a non-partisan political analyst, predicts that criticism from Mr Rove or the outlets he influences could become more frequent.
“Whenever Perry makes mistakes, you will hear Karl Rove articulate them publicly or you will see a product of it and it will be done very well,” Mr Cook says.
“Karl is smart and influential and if he wants to hurt someone, he knows how to do it. I suspect he doesn’t think Perry would be a particularly strong general election candidate.”
That is because, as excited as roughly two-thirds of the Republican party may be over candidates such as Mr Perry and Michele Bachmann, who is competing for the support of Christian conservatives and Tea Party Republicans in the Republican primary, these candidates might turn off more moderate Republicans and independent voters.
Some Washington insiders predict a knock down fight between Mr Perry and Ms Bachmann in coming months. The winner in that fight will then be matched against Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who would be more appealing to independent voters in a general election.
“The question is: are there very conservative Republicans who will see that Perry and Bachmann are not the perfect vehicle to win the White House? Will they go with their hearts or their heads? If they go with their heads, they go with Romney,” Mr Cook says.
The current inhabitant of the White House is probably hoping that the Republican heart prevails.
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