Little Rick faces tough battle to be President Perry


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The Independent Online

Kenny Thompson's heart was in his mouth one morning 30 years ago as he watched a small plane bounce down the earthen air strip across the road from his house, mud caked on its wheels and engine screaming.

"He was revving her up so tight and there was a point, you know, when either he pulled her up or put on the brakes. I didn't honestly know if he was going to make it."

The pilot, he found out later, was Rick Perry, who had grown up in the same remote community of Paint Creek in North Texas and had just finished five years in the Air Force. He missed the crown of the road by inches, recalls Mr Thompson, a county commissioner here. The bright yellow plane then passed below the power lines on the other side before finally lifting into the sky.

This was Perry all over. He was the kid who had pushed a huge snowball from a classroom roof to hit members of the girls' basketball team – it hit the school superintendent instead.

"If everyone knew everything he done as a kid, they would be shocked," says Don Ballard, a boyhood friend and now schools superintendent. At university he put fireworks in the upstairs plumbing so they would explode in toilet bowls three floors below.

There is affection in the tales because "Little Rick", as they once called him, would start a political career that led to the governor's mansion in Austin, four hours south of here. But as Rick Perry makes a late bid for the Republican presidential nomination, some in Paint Creek and Austin wonder if this time the gamble is too big. They see mud on his wheels again.

Mr Perry has a good story to tell. Throughout his tenure, he has been assiduous in maintaining Texas as a business-friendly haven with low taxation, minimum red tape and assorted other incentives, including help from job creation and investment agencies he set up to increase the Lone Star allure.

The model has worked well in Texas, which, since he himself defected from the Democrats in 1989, has grown increasingly Republican. Texan supporters don't much question the ethics of money that washes back and forth in Austin – Texas campaign funding laws are among the country's most lax – or see anything wrong in his wearing his Christian beliefs on his sleeve or expounding relentless conservative views, whether on blunting federal government or dismissing global warming.

On the national stage, however, Mr Perry may find less tolerance. His record of conservative governing and views – he has even expounded in favour of creationism over Darwinism – means he probably has the Christian evangelicals who dominate the primary process sewn up. Winning moderate and establishment Republicans, not to mention the independents he needs in a general election, will be tougher.

"It's just not clear to me how he gets past that," says Bruce Buchanan, a political science professor at the University of Texas and a specialist in presidential politics. "His policy positions are of a sort that will not appeal to independent voters... His tendency towards extremist positions on things like global warming are controversial within his own party let alone among independents."