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At CPAC, Few Signs of Support for Rick Perry in '16

At CPAC, Few Signs of Support for Rick Perry in '16

By Scott Conroy - March 15, 2013

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- When Rick Perry wrapped up his 18-minute speech Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference here, Matt Hernberg of the New Jersey College Republicans was among those who rose to their feet to give the Texas governor a standing ovation.

But asked moments later whether he hoped Perry would run for president again in 2016, Hernberg made clear that his demonstration of support was of the “just being polite” variety.

“Let’s be honest: I think he’d be a great guy to have a beer with, but I don’t think he’s the leader we need in this country,” Hernberg said of the onetime GOP front-runner in the 2012 race. “We need a leader that is more articulate and can better substantiate what they believe in.”

Among the reasons Perry’s White House bid appeared so formidable when he launched it in 2011 was his then-unrivaled support from the small-government, grassroots conservative activists who hold sway over Republican nominating battles.

Perry was, after all, among the first prominent party leaders to fully embrace the Tea Party movement back in 2009, and he has had one of the nation’s most conservative records during his 12 years as governor.

His swaggering, straight-out-of-Paint-Creek persona, combined with his stalwart small-government positions seemed to make him the total package for the anti-establishment crowd -- without sacrificing his appeal to large swaths of the Republican establishment who did not see him as an out-of-the-mainstream zealot.

It appeared at the time to be a winning formula. History, of course, proved otherwise.

If Perry does launch a second White House bid in 2016, the reaction to his appearance at this year’s CPAC suggests he has a great deal of work to do to convince the conservative true-believers that he deserves another shot at their support.

The three-term governor may never have been the first choice of the young, libertarian-leaning adherents that dominate the nation’s largest annual gathering of conservative activists, but there is a clear sense here among the CPAC crowd that Perry had his chance and does not deserve a mulligan.

Asked whether he wanted to see Perry run for the nation’s highest office again, Langston Bowens of the Young Tea Party Patriots echoed the sentiment conveyed by Hernberg and several other attendees.

“No, not at all,” Bowens said. “Rick Perry’s a good guy, but I think it’s time the party steps away from Rick Perry, the Bushes, the Romneys, and begins to focus more on [Marco] Rubio, Rand Paul, and taking a stance on issues that all Americans can get behind. Perry’s definitely the old guard.”

In their own CPAC speeches earlier in the day, Rubio and Paul indeed seemed to be every bit the embodiments of the next generation of conservative leaders, whom most of the activists here are pining to see change the trajectory of the GOP in 2016.

Meanwhile, at age 63 and already the nation’s longest-serving governor, Perry has shown no signs of preparing to call it quits. He is up for re-election in 2014, and in April of last year he said that he intended to give the idea of running for president again “a good examination.”

Entering CPAC’s main stage to the song “God Bless Texas,” he mostly stuck to well-worn themes in touting his home state’s economic strength, advocating for a part-time Congress to mirror the Texas Legislature, and knocking the “central planners” who make U.S. economic policy.

But Perry also dished out a few surprises to those in the mostly filled ballroom at this convention center complex just outside the nation’s capital.

“For all the bad things that I say about Washington, I never mind coming here,” he said. “This is just a fabulous place to come.”

Perry defended his controversial decision not to accept federal funds for an expansion of Medicare in Texas under the health care reform law, suggesting that such a move would lead to “single-payer medicine.”

The moment in his speech that likely will be most remembered occurred when Perry took a shot at his party’s last two presidential nominees -- John McCain and Mitt Romney.

“The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections -- that’s what they think,” he said. “That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012.”

The broadside against the two GOP establishment figures earned Perry applause as he built rhetorical steam in criticizing the popular belief that the party must shift its message and tactics in order to appeal to more Hispanics.

Perry, who earned close to 40 percent of the Latino vote in Texas during his 2010 gubernatorial election, was eager to dispel that notion.

“Let me say something about what appeals to Hispanics in states like Texas,” he said. “It’s the free-enterprise agenda that allows small businesses to prosper -- free of government interference. It’s the policies that allow the family unit as the best and closest form of government. It’s the belief in life and the faith in God. No one who risks life and limb to reach our shores comes here hoping for a government handout.”

As Perry’s voice rose to a crescendo, the crowd rewarded him with sustained applause but little sign of the adulation he received from Tea Party-friendly crowds in years past.

Former Florida Congressman Allen West, who remains a Tea Party favorite four months after his electoral defeat, stood just outside the large ballroom where Perry spoke.

As he took a break from greeting a steady stream of well-wishers to speak with a reporter, the decorated Army lieutenant colonel turned politician didn’t have to say much at all in summing up the prevailing sentiment here when asked whether he expected Perry to be a viable presidential candidate in 2016.

“I don’t know,” West said, pausing to consider for a moment. “I mean, I don’t know.” 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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