Rick Perry and the GOP’s ‘Texas option’

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Should the Republican Party draft Texas Gov. Rick Perry as its presidential standard-bearer in 2012?

With the recent exits of Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich’s seemingly endless gaffes and pratfalls, and the steadfast refusal of other GOP favorites like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to join the race, conservatives are beginning to whisper loudly about Perry.

Officially, the 61-year-old native Texan, who was just re-elected to his third full term, isn’t running. Unofficially, it’s obvious he’s interested — in fact, his top aides are quietly putting out feelers. But, like George W. Bush in 1999, Perry wants the GOP to ask him to run — or perhaps “beg” would be a better word.

And if current trends hold, it well might — and soon.

Consider what Perry would bring to the race:

Jobs. Perry has already transformed Texas into the largest job incubator in the nation at a time when President Obama and the Democrats are being blamed for failing to reduce near-record level joblessness. Perry has offered special tax breaks to companies willing to relocate and open production facilities in his state — and they’ve responded in droves. Other GOP candidates — like the recently departed Daniels — can boast a track record tackling the deficit. But none has Perry’s standing on jobs.

Obamacare. Perry has been a steadfast critic of Obamacare and has refused to entertain compromises of the kind that may well doom the candidacies of Gingrich and Mitt Romney. And unlike two other Southern governors, Bobby Jindal in Louisiana and Nathan Deal in Georgia, who’ve tried to hedge their bets politically, Perry has discouraged Texas legislators from even introducing legislation to support a state-based Obamacare health benefits exchange. Perry’s tough position will place him squarely in the conservative Tea Party camp, alongside of Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty.

Social issues. Unlike Mitch Daniels, who alienated the GOP base months ago by insisting on a “truce” on social issues, Perry is also a tried and true social conservative who remains an outspoken opponent of abortion. He just signed into law a measure that requires women seeking abortions to agree to a sonogram, as well as a vehicle license plate bill giving Texas motorists the option of promoting a “pro-life” message. These highly symbolic moves will resonate with evangelical voters and could allow Perry to run strongly in the South and in the Iowa caucuses, where the race, post-Huckabee, is wide open.

The border. Perry is a border hawk, but he’s managed to craft a nuanced position that allows him to draw in a wide range of political constituencies. Unlike much of the GOP, he opposes an Arizona-style crackdown law, saying it’s not needed in Texas. He’s also criticized the U.S.-Mexico border fence, which many conservative landowners with affected properties along the border also oppose. Instead, Perry advocates stepped-up use of the National Guard and border patrol agents, as well as the introduction of Predator drones to maintain better surveillance of illegal immigrants and drug gangs. He opposes Obama’s “amnesty” plan, including the more limited DREAM Act.

Hispanics. Thanks in part to his immigration views, Perry has also managed to increase his support among the nation’s fastest-growing voter group, at a time when many Republicans haven’t. Last November, Perry claimed nearly 40% of the Hispanic vote in his general election race against Democrat Bill White — up from roughly 33% three years earlier — which helped power him to a blistering double-digit victory. Perry’s immigration formula could ensure that the GOP retains its high percentage of white voters while attracting a healthy share of the national Hispanic electorate, dooming Obama’s re-election. His candidacy also provides a huge firewall against Democratic attempts to take back the Lone Star State.

Charisma. Also not to be underestimated is Perry’s Alpha-male “presence” and his gruff Texas-rancher demeanor, which gives him the potential to outshine — or at least out-macho — the rest of the GOP field. Gingrich may be brainier, Pawlenty more articulate, Bachmann feistier, and Huntsman and Romney more telegenic, but none projects Perry’s stolid cowboy toughness and grit. Perry is already gone head-to-toe with Obama on border issues, and despite his three terms, and long involvement in politics, he retains his status as a Washington “outsider.” We’ve already seen — twice — how the Southern “Bubba” factor can play nationally, especially with Reagan Democrats.

And then there’s the “Bush” factor itself. Though Perry, like Bush, is a protégé of Karl Rove, he’s broken with the Bush circle, especially after they backed his GOP primary opponent, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Perry cleverly pivoted, and won the endorsement of Sarah Palin, which helped him defeat Hutchison, before going on to defeat the Democratic mayor of Houston, Bill White, by double digits. And despite Palin’s support, Perry bested White 59-36 percent among independents, a clear sign of his enormous crossover appeal.

Palin’s support could provide Perry with an important conservative funding stream, while bolstering his outsider image. But Perry as the “anti-Bush” also has the potential to weaken the expected 2012 Obama narrative, which is certain to portray any GOP nominee as an heir to Bush tax policies and to the Bush presidency generally. The more Perry steers clear of any symbolic or practical association with the “Bushies,” the more credibility he will retain with the Tea Party while continuing to project a governing style and track record that can woo independents who are disenchanted with Obama but in no mood to relive the policies of his predecessor.

Of course, there’s a distinct irony here. The Perry road to the GOP nomination — a late draft by a deadlocked and under-performing party in need of a “dark horse” — resembles nothing less than the strategy that catapulted George W. Bush to the nomination in 2000. Bush never actively sought the nomination either, which allowed him to project an image of genial diffidence that helped endear him to Republicans. Perry, if he runs, is likely to position himself as a Bush-like compassionate Christian conservative who simply responded to his party’s “call to serve.”

But will it happen? That probably depends on how fragmented the current GOP field remains after the Iowa straw poll in August. With Daniels out, some GOP establishment figures, including veterans of John McCain’s 2008 campaign, and McCain himself, are plainly hoping that the pro-life Huntsman, a fiscal hawk with a stellar conservative governing record in Utah and serious foreign policy chops, can somehow steal the grassroots thunder of Bachmann and Pawlenty while wooing establishment funders still leery of investing in Romney’s already divisive candidacy.

But if Huntsman fails to gain traction, and Bachmann, Pawlenty and even Herman Cain surge in the Iowa straw poll in August, the GOP field is likely to head into the fall with no clear frontrunner, and with the different candidates dividing and even subdividing key party constituencies, and holding forth in distinct geographic regions — Romney in the Northeast and parts of the West, Huntsman in parts of the South, and the most insurgent Tea Party forces dominating the Midwest and other parts of the South. At that point, the “Draft Perry” movement is likely to gain additional steam.

Could blockbuster Texas, home of the Alamo, become the scene of another GOP “last stand”?

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.

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