Rupert Cornwell: Republican with self-belief and God on his ticket

Out of America: Rick Perry became governor of Texas after Bush. Will he now try to follow him to the White House?
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The Independent Online

Are you of the view that the last thing the US wants is another swaggering, tax-cutting, God-fearing governor of Texas running for president? Think again. Unless he's deliberately been leading everyone a barn dance these last couple of months, Rick Perry is pretty much booted, spurred and ready to go. Be warned: Perry is George W Bush on steroids.

Thus far, the contest for the Republican nomination in 2012 has had a faintly unreal flavour. The declared candidates go through the motions, but with the possible exception of the Tea Party favourite, Michele Bachmann, none has exactly caught the party's imagination. One Perry supporter described them to The New York Times as "like a drought-stricken cotton crop".

And by the most important measure of all – money – they are sputtering, raising just $35m between them, barely a quarter of what their counterparts had at the equivalent stage in 2007; less than half the $86m already raised by President Obama for his re-election campaign.

All of which suggests the field is not yet complete. A clutch of touted governors have decided to pass, whether for family reasons, or because they did not have that combination of mission, self-belief and ambition that propels otherwise sane individuals to undertake a White House campaign, the most gruelling ordeal ever devised by democracy. But Sarah Palin continues to tease, and Rudy Giuliani is again testing the waters. Then there's Rick Perry.

It's not just his credentials that give him clout – he is the longest-serving governor of one of the largest states (Perry took over when Bush won the presidency in 2000 and has since been re-elected three times in his own right) and has presided over a state economy that has grown, even as most of the rest of the country has floundered. Would-be candidates usually must also overcome the reluctance of their families. Not so Perry, whose wife, Anita, is urging him to get in the race.

"I know you're comfortable as governor, but you need to get out of your comfort zone," Perry has recounted her as telling him. And in the same radio interview, he spoke of the "calmness in my soul" and of the "incredible outpouring" of support he had received since he let slip he was thinking about running. "As each day goes by, I get more comfortable that the direction I'm headed is the right direction." If that doesn't sound a candidate-to-be, what does?

But the very fact that he's contemplating a run when America should still be suffering acute Bush-fatigue bespeaks two truths. The first is the sheer importance of Texas in the contemporary US. It has now overtaken New York as the second most populous state, behind only California, gaining four precious electoral college votes as a result of the 2010 census, as New York was losing two.

The Lone Star State's current success reflects the recent oil boom – but also the hard-edged economic model favoured by Republicans, of deregulation, small government and reduced welfare benefits. The gap between rich and poor is growing across America, but in few places as rapidly as Texas.

The second lesson of any Perry candidacy is how much the Republican party has moved to the right, even in the 30 months since "W" left office. The two have a similar laid-back style. But "Perry is twice the cowboy Bush ever was," says a Republican analyst.

Perry is far more into "states' rights" (the credo on which the South fought the Civil War) than Bush ever was – he has even spoken of secession if Washington messed too much with Texas. He's tougher on immigration than Bush, and has little time for Bush's signature federal education initiative, No Child Left Behind.

Most wounding of all in these deficit-obsessed times, Perry has suggested that his predecessor in the governor's mansion was a big spender at heart. There's been tension between the two ever since, something Perry can ill afford if he wants the Bush machine and the Karl Roves of this world in his corner for any campaign.

As for God, Perry outdoes even Bush. On 6 August he is organising a prayer meeting in Houston, precisely the sort of event to endear him to conservative voters so important in the early Republican primaries next year. The American way of life is under threat, he said at one fundraiser for the prayer day: "It's time to just hand it over to God and say, 'God, you're gonna have to fix this'."

The assumption is that if Perry enters the race, he will automatically be a top-tier candidate. He's a proven fundraiser, of obvious appeal to the Tea Party. Some believe he may even be endorsed by Palin, a step that would enhance that appeal (and end uncertainty about her own intentions).

He may, however, have waited too long. US presidential history is replete with candidates who have come late to the fray, answering the demand of party voters for a wider choice, only to fail miserably. The perceived gap on the right of the field, as Tea Party champion and alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney, may already have been filled by Bachmann.

But never forget that Perry has the knack of being in the right place at the right time: when he first caught the Republican tide in Texas in the early 1990s, then as lieutenant governor when Bush moved on to higher things, and now when the Republican field leaves so many unsatisfied. The age of the Texans may not be over.





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