By Matthew Barrett
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US Republicans are having a tough time considering who their candidate should be for the 2012 Presidential election.
Mitt Romney is the current front-runner, but has a ceiling of support at around 35-40% of the vote. He is fatally hamstrung, however, by the healthcare law he passed when he was Governor of Massachusetts, which many Republicans compare to the federal healthcare law ("Obamacare") which they fiercely oppose and are desperate to repeal. He is also a Mormon, which largely makes him unable to connect with the evangelical Christians who make up a sizeable chunk of the Republican Party.
Michele Bachmann, who entered the race to become the party's nominee relatively recently, has created a lot of excitement, and started coming second in polls. Despite her lack of a record to point to (she has been representing Minnesota's 6th Congressional district for four years) and lack of executive experience, the excitement around her is understandable. She's the first candidate really to start vocally challenging President Obama, she's a Tea Partier, and she gets media coverage.
Tim Pawlenty, the former Governor of Minnesota, is, on paper, a good candidate. Unfortunately for him, he can't translate his executive experience, conservative record, and life story into support. He must do well in a poll – the Ames straw poll, in Iowa in the coming weeks, a key test of candidates' organisational strength on the ground in the first-primary-state – to give his campaign any sign of life. If he doesn't do well, you can count him out.
Other candidates are, deservedly or not, becoming largely irrelevant: Former Governor and Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Former Gov Gary Johnson, Former Gov Buddy Roemer, Former Senator Rick Santorum, Representative Thaddeus McCotter, Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and businessman Herman Cain. Oh, and Ron Paul.
What many Republicans are hoping for is an "anti-Romney". Someone who can unite fiscal conservatives and social conservatives (unlike Romney). Someone with experience (unlike Bachmann). Someone charismatic (unlike the rest).
Enter Rick Perry.
Rick Perry is currently the longest-serving Governor in the country, having been Governor of Texas since 2000 (re-elected 2002, 2006 and last year) – and the longest ever serving Governor of Texas. Coming from Texas – a heartland within the regional heartland of the South – gives Perry access to a big donor base, experience of (successfully) governing the second-largest economy in the country, and the media spotlight.
Luckily, it looks like Governor Perry is about to step into the race.
He has an interesting back-story: of a relatively lowly rural background, he served in the US Air Force in the 1970s, reaching the rank of Captain. After working on the family farm for a few years, Perry was elected to the Texas House of Representatives of Texas – as a socially conservative Democrat. During his time in the Texas legislature, Perry supported Al Gore for President in 1988 (who, in fairness, was then seen as a fellow southern conservative Democrat). Not long after, he joined the Republicans, and in 1991 was elected as the Commissioner of Agriculture of Texas, rising to become Lieutenant Governor to George W Bush (Perry was the first Republican Lieutenant Governor in Texas since the Reconstruction era more than a century before). When Bush resigned to become President in 2000, Perry succeeded him.
Although the Bush clan and Perry are not on the best of terms, there is some valid comparison between the two – their pre-Presidential job, their Texas drawl and swagger, and, as the New York Times' excellent Nate Silver explains, this is a problem for Mr Perry:
"But general elections are largely determined by the tide of independent voters, who soured on Mr. Bush in his second term and swung to Mr. Obama by a margin of eight percentage points in 2008. Those voters aren’t exactly enamored of Mr. Obama anymore, but it is fair to wonder whether they could be persuaded to return to the Republican fold by a candidate whose résumé and rhetoric would feel so painfully familiar. It would be like Democrats nominating a peanut farmer in 1988.
Presidential candidates tend to embody either futurism or nostalgia, the next American era or the last. The problem for Rick Perry, if he’s serious about running, may be that he won’t get to decide which one he represents."
In his own right, Perry has a number of advantages. He is an evangelical Christian, which means he should be able to connect well with religious and social conservatives. He is a fiscal conservative, and a constitutional conservative. His book, "Fed Up!", rails against the federal, Washington government, and instead advocates individual states having more power.
Perry also has the key advantage in this Republican nomination of being a Tea Partier. He was one of the few politicians in high office to "get" the Tea Party movement from the beginning. Perry is a disciplined politician, with few gaffes to his name compared to other candidates. He is pro-life, pro-Israel and pro-active foreign policy. So he's got religious conservatives, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, national security conservatives, Tea Party conservatives and constitutional conservatives. It's hard to think of a section of a party he doesn't appeal to.
His popularity might, at first, seem a blow to any potential candidacy: in a recent poll, he had a minus 8 approval rating in Texas (42-50). On the face of it, this is bad, but compare it to Santorum (-10), Romney (-12), Pawlenty (-13), Palin (-25), and Bachmann (-26) in their home states, and he's relatively popular. Another strength of a Perry candidacy is the fact that in last year's election in Texas, he was re-elected with 38% of the Hispanic vote – Hispanic voters being a key constituency that Republicans have so far failed to tap into properly at the national level. His measured rhetoric over immigration and the Mexico-Texas border is a factor in this – rejecting radical schemes as implemented in Arizona, and advocating sensible solutions instead.
What of his economic record? Texas largely avoided the worst parts of the current recession. Perry himself said:
"As a matter of fact … someone had put a report out that the first state that's coming out of the recession is going to be the state of Texas … I said, 'We're in one?'"
The reasons why Texas was well-placed to weather the storm are laid out by the Atlantic's Derek Thompson: favourable gas prices, strong export figures, strong manufacturing, the housing market did not crash because prices stayed low – partially thanks to large-scale new home building, banks had conservative lending policies and so did not crash either, low cost of living, the major cities have diverse economies and do not rely on the services and financial sectors (unlike, for example, Britain or fellow states like California), a focus on stable industries (energy, healthcare, education), lack of unionised labour, less worker regulation and a business-friendly tax system – there is no state income or capital gains tax.
How will Perry's opponents try and beat him? They will characterise Perry as a big-government conservative. They will do this in four ways. Firstly, they will point out his close working relationship with George W Bush during the 1990s. It is fashionable in current American conservatives circles to regard Bush as a sponsor of big-spending, big-government programmes. Secondly, they will point to his support of former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani, a moderate, in the 2007-8 Republican primaries.
Thirdly, they will point to his previous affiliation as a Democrat, and support for Al Gore in 1988 (Perry's response is likely to be along the lines of "for many years, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat"). Finally, Perry ran into some difficulty in Texas when he attempted to pass a vaccination bill in 2007. A report from the time by the Houston Chronicle explains the situation succinctly:
"Gov. Rick Perry stood firm Monday against a political firestorm generated by his order that sixth-grade girls be inoculated against a sexually transmitted virus linked to cervical cancer. Social conservatives from Texas to Washington called on Perry to reverse his order making Texas the first state to require the vaccine, saying the mandate makes sex seem permissible and that parents should be the ones to decide whether to immunize their daughters. And several Texas lawmakers expressed outrage at Perry for circumventing the legislative process."
His other difficulty is his relatively late entry into the race. That's a problem because Republican donors, activists and advisors may well have found other candidates to support – Romney is the leading fundraiser. But with the lack of a consensus candidate, the lack of an experienced and exciting candidate, there is still a lot of financial and organisational support available to the right candidate.
Perry has a story to tell. He didn't go to good schools and elite universities, as Barack Obama did, and he didn't come from a wealthy family, as Mitt Romney did. Instead, Governor Perry served his country in the Air Force, in the Texas state legislature, and worked his way up to becoming Governor of the second-biggest state in the country. His beliefs tick the boxes of all the conservative factions: fiscal, national security, constitutional, social, religious and Tea Party. His record in office is one of economic prosperity through low taxes and responsible spending. He's the longest serving Governor in Texan history, and the longest serving current Governor in the country, and he knows how to win. Put all that against a poor field of candidates in an election when conservatives are desperate to make Obama a one-term President. That's why many Republicans are wondering if Rick Perry is "the one".