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Despite Hurdles for '16, Time Is on Perry's Side

Despite Hurdles for '16, Time Is on Perry's Side

By Scott Conroy - July 8, 2013

Rick Perry has announced that he will not seek a fourth full term as Texas governor next year. "The time has come to pass off the mantle of leadership," he said Monday in San Antonio.

Perry's announcement bolstered perceptions that he is leaning toward a second presidential campaign four years after his once front-running White House bid fizzled out. During an appearance Sunday on Fox News, Perry called a 2016 presidential run “an option.”

If he does throw his hat in the ring once again, there will be no shortage of factors working against him, not the least of which is a fresh crop of viable Republican candidates who could collectively make the nation’s longest-serving governor seem like old news.

But one thing the brash former Air Force pilot would possess is something he lacked the last time around: time.

When Perry repeatedly insisted he wouldn’t run for president in the early months of 2011, he was not merely being coy about his ambitions. It was not until the Republican primary fight was well under way that he showed signs of reconsidering his position and took the first steps toward mapping out a path to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

By the time Perry entered the race after the Ames Straw Poll in August 2011, it may have already been too late to catch up.

“There’s no question that our biggest limitation -- which, of course, we knew -- was time,” recalled Perry’s longtime political guru Dave Carney.

As he once again eyes the nation’s highest office, however, Perry and his political team are determined not to make that mistake twice. With the 2016 Iowa caucuses 2½ years away, the Texas governor is putting in the kind of early legwork that he neglected the last time around.

“He’s been pretty focused on trying to take a look at ’16 and putting together some sort of plan to get out and about in the country,” Carney said, “not just to raise money but to rehabilitate his relationships with people, build new ones, and put an organization in place to assess whether or not he has a shot to be competitive.”

After he launched his 2012 campaign, it initially appeared as if Perry’s minimal preparation might have been enough. He surged quickly to the front of a weak Republican field, as his conservative bona fides, record in fostering job growth, and Texas-size fundraising network combined to give him the appearance of the candidate to beat for the nomination.

But Perry quickly lost steam amid a series of increasingly damaging blunders and poor debate performances, which culminated on a Michigan stage in November when the befuddled candidate struggled unsuccessfully to remember the third federal agency that he proposed to eliminate.

“Oops,” Perry finally concluded during a cringe-worthy verbal calamity that became emblematic of his campaign.

He finished in fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and limped along for another two weeks before dropping out of the race two days before the South Carolina primary, which he had once been widely expected to win.

Bob Haus, who ran Perry’s 2012 campaign in the Hawkeye State, said that with the benefit of added time to prepare, the candidate might be able to better promote Texas’ continued economic success as an unrivaled job credential.

“He's got an even better story to tell now than he did in 2012, and he'll have a lot more time to tell it,” Haus said. “And yes, that time will allow him to prove himself on the stage again. We saw during the later debates what his focused preparation yielded: strong answers and succinct policy.”

But even Perry’s strongest admirers agree that it won’t be easy for him to compete seriously in 2016.

During his appearance earlier this year at the CPAC gathering outside of Washington, Perry made barely a blip amid a schedule packed with newer additions to the national scene, suggesting that grassroots activists largely had moved on from a man who didn’t seem up to the task of running for president and who disappointed conservatives when he failed to respond effectively to criticism of him on key issues.

Perry took particular heat among rank-and-file Republicans during the primaries for legislation he signed that allowed the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas universities.

South Carolina GOP consultant Walter Whetsell, who helmed Perry’s short-lived primary campaign in the Palmetto State, predicted that the governor’s nuanced views on immigration reform will be seen as prescient by 2016 -- if the bill that recently passed the Senate is ultimately signed into law.

“He was just a cycle ahead of himself on the issue of immigration,” Whetsell said. “Running for president is a two-year learning curve. Now he’s got the perspective of what it takes to run.”

Perry, however, might have to play second fiddle on immigration reform to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has long been a vocal and instrumental player on the issue in the Senate and is likely to mount his own 2016 presidential campaign.

Still, Whetsell insisted that the Texan has retained a “significantly large, loyal group of true believers” in South Carolina -- a state that could be instrumental to his hopes of winning the nomination.

Perry’s long-running confrontation with Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis over an anti-abortion-rights bill in the Texas legislature may also help revive his image among national conservatives who long ago dismissed him as a viable presidential contender.

Democrats, meanwhile, likely would welcome the opportunity to wage a general election campaign against a man they would paint as an extremist leading a state that ranks among the nation’s worst in insuring its citizens, combating poverty, and graduating its high school students.

But there is no doubt that Perry would bring other key assets to the 2016 contest. He was among the first national politicians to fully embrace the nascent Tea Party movement in 2009 and his record in leading one of the most conservative states in the nation for 13 years is by and large in line with the views of much of the Republican primary electorate.

While his 2012 campaign may have been a lesson in political futility, Perry’s strong retail politicking skills may offer a significant advantage in Iowa and other small caucus and primary states if he begins visiting them early in the campaign cycle.

The YouTube clips of his “oops” moment would likely remain a lasting obstacle for the candidate to surmount, but politicians have overcome worse setbacks.

Perry is poised to weigh in with increasing frequency in the coming months on major issues before the country, part of an effort to bolster his policy chops while serving out the remainder of his third full term. That term ends in January 2015 when the governor’s mansion will have a new occupant for the first time since 2000.

With a day job no longer holding him down at that point, he will have plenty of free time to gear up for a second presidential campaign in earnest.

“There’s a lot of things going on at the national and international level that you need to focus on and get up to speed on,” Carney said. “We have a handful of candidates on our side who ran and didn’t win the nomination the first time out. It takes time to meet people, and I think our party tends to want to have an affinity with people, and it’s less movement-driven than it is about personal relationships. You can’t build those in one election.” 

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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