At the Republican State Convention in Fort Worth on Thursday, Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry and his wife gave strong signals that while the state's longest-serving Texas governor is finally stepping down, he might well be back for an encore — as a presidential contender.
While introducing her husband at what was billed as a farewell address after 14 years of running the state, Anita Perry hinted at their political future by saying there's still "tread left in our tires."
For his part, the governor urged the assembled Texas GOP leaders to rebuild America by putting a Republican in the White House who would bring Texas-style governance to the country as a whole. "We need to set the stage for 2016," Perry said. "When we will win the White House and we will rebuild the American dream."
The 30-minute speech was powerful and flawless, eliciting roars from the delegates and bringing them to their feet time and again. It reminded many there of why their governor was once considered the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
It was in August 2012, during the party's long walk in the presidential candidate wilderness — when conservatives were careening from one favorite to another — that Rick Perry threw his hat in the ring. He quickly shot to the top of the primary polls.
He was viewed as a veteran Texas campaigner who would have no trouble making the transition to the national scene. A longtime friend of big business, his access to corporate campaign contributions solidified his status as a real contender — he'd already raised tens of millions of dollars in his races for governor. The smart money's conclusion: Watch out, this guy is a pro.
But Perry struggled right out of the gate. In a misguided attempt to polish his conservative bona fides, the Texas governor said Ben Bernanke should stop stimulating the American economy by printing more money.
Had he stopped there, it would have been fine. But Perry went on to call the Federal Reserve chairman "treasonous" and said if Bernanke ever came to Texas, he could expect to be treated "pretty ugly." The tone was off — too rude and too confrontational. Even conservative Texans were aghast at their governor's suggesting they would treat a guest to their state poorly — of course they'd be polite to Mr. Bernanke should he ever come to Dallas.
Perry quickly raised $17 million in the early weeks of his campaign, but winning over GOP voters proved to be another thing entirely. He seemed wooden, if not invisible, during televised debates. In Orlando, Fla., Perry badly botched an attempt to paint Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper on national television.
The blustery winds of November took Perry to New Hampshire, where a speech there went so poorly that veteran New Hampshire political operatives left shaking their heads in dismay. Suggestions were proffered that Perry might have been under the influence during the speech. The governor denied it. He began finishing fifth in straw polls.
Then came Perry's "oops" moment — when during another debate in Michigan, he couldn't remember all the names of the federal agencies he had said he would abolish if he became president. It was so humiliating that afterward, reporters rushed to ask him if would drop out immediately. A presidential campaign that had begun with such promise was circling the drain.
Fast-forward to 2014. Over the past six months, Perry has been dropping strong hints that he wants to take a mulligan and tee it up again. He's been making the presidential primary tour, and on Meet the Press in May said that America was a place that "believes in second chances."
"I'm going across the country talking about red state versus blue state policies," Perry said. "Hopefully engaged in good, thoughtful, winsome conversation about how do we make America more competitive."
But according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, the Texas governor has his work cut out for him. Perry ranks in ninth place behind Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker. It's very early, but that's a hill to climb.
And Perry is no longer the Tea Party darling from Texas he once was. That distinction now goes to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who also is dropping strong hints that he's going to run for president. And Cruz is everything Perry wasn't: articulate, quick on his feet, a lawyer who feels comfortable waxing eloquently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Oops" is not going to be something that keeps Cruz's campaign team up at night. And he can be funny, warm and dedicated. If Perry is the consummate political operator, Cruz is the Tea Party True Believer — in capital letters. And Republicans who vote in primaries like candidates who aren't professional politicians, or at least ones who haven't been professional for very long.
In 2012, Cruz annihilated Perry's lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, when they ran against each other for the Senate, despite Dewhurst's possession of the Perry endorsement.
The biggest obstacle to another Perry presidential campaign? When Tea Party Republicans around the country think of a conservative champion from Texas, they're no longer thinking about him.