A Wiser Rick Perry Takes Campaign Step By Step

A Wiser Rick Perry Takes Campaign Step By Step
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Ted Cruz is sucking up much of the oxygen this week after kicking off his bid for the White House. But another Texan, former Gov. Rick Perry, has been steadily building his own presidential campaign, preparing to launch within a couple of months. 

The Lone Star State is indeed big enough for the presidential ambitions of its freshman senator and its recently retired governor. But does the GOP primary field, already the largest it’s been in recent memory, have room for both Texans? Or, more specifically, is there a place for Perry?

Cruz and Perry two have little in common outside of their shared home state. Unlike Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, fellow Floridians who seem to enjoy a collegial relationship and a deep mutual connection to their state, Perry and Cruz operate in different universes.

Texas is an element of Cruz’s campaign, but it’s a backbone for Perry’s. As Cruz angles for a specific lane in the Republican presidential primary, Perry is eyeing them all. The governor’s major selling point is his long record on jobs and the economy and his first-hand experience with border security in Texas. His advisers believe he can “cross pollinate” the many competing factions of the GOP.

Others are also running on their executive credentials and diverse appeal, and one in particular, Scott Walker, is actually making headway in the early polls. Perry will argue that he’s got more of it, as well as more experience in the executive office, without a day job to get in the way of a campaign. And he’s out to prove he is ready for the full rodeo, not just the starting gate.

In the last election, the governor jumped into the race full speed in August 2011, but without a plan, and “oops” was all he wrote.

“We saw what happened last time when you parachute out of the plane and have no where to land,” one closer adviser said. This time, the distinctly bespectacled governor has focused on mental and physical preparedness, making sure the nature of his tutoring sessions, travels, and workout routines have been well documented in the press. He is expected to enter the race in May or June, and has had a full early-state schedule this year.

Big Presence in Early States

Perry, who left the state house in January after 14 years at the helm, went to Iowa and New Hampshire this month. He is traveling to South Carolina (where his first campaign began and ended) around Easter and will give a speech at the Citadel, most likely on foreign policy. Perry will go back to New Hampshire in mid-April for a round-up of presidential contenders to kick off primary season there, and will go to Iowa again by the end of the month.

He's been campaigning with a heavy emphasis on his biography and humble beginnings, growing up on a cotton farm without running water, background that figures to be an integral part of his stump speeches.

During campaign stops, he talks about shrinking the size and scope of government and raises concerns about national security in terms of foreign policy but also at the border. He is campaigning as a fiscal conservative who can also appeal to other factions of the party when it comes to a range of issues, from national security, to energy, to business, to spending.

In Iowa last week, Perry talked about being tough on border security while also winning a sizable portion of the Hispanic vote in his state, according to a dispatch from the Des Moines Register. He also advocated for prison sentencing reform, and promoted efforts in Texas to shut down prisons and save the state “billions.” In New Hampshire, Perry cautioned against military action abroad. "Wars must always be the last resort," he said. 

At a breakfast session with Bloomberg News in Houston this week, Perry argued he could win Iowa and Pennsylvania, two critical states Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.

Unlike the early GOP frontrunners of the 2016 campaign, Perry has personally been through the rigors of a presidential campaign. But in many ways, he is starting from scratch, barely resonating in early polls and working to erase the impression he might have left on voters last time instead of working to build on it.

The new start is especially true in New Hampshire, where Perry barely touched down in the first campaign but where he has now spent 10 days over the past nine months.

Building Relationships

“He’s building relationships in New Hampshire for the first time, and preparing in a way here he’s never done before,” says Michael Dennehy, who is advising the governor’s campaign there. “In 2011, Rick Perry parachuted into New Hampshire as someone who virtually catapulted to the front of the pack, and he never had the ability to start small, which is what you need to do in the early states.”

Perry has been taking the Granite State in small groups and embracing the hand-to-hand campaign style the state is known for. “There is not a better retail politician than Rick Perry,” says Dennehy, something the governor’s supporters and opponents invariably remark about him. Perry also stands out from the crowd as an Air Force veteran, which advisers say can appeal to the state’s 100,000 veterans.

“It's a process that’s going to take a year of talking about Rick Perry's record,” says Dennehy, who advised John McCain's Granite State primary win in 2008. “It takes a full year of campaigning, and talking to voters intimately and directly.”

Iowa and South Carolina are more familiar territories for Perry, but the governor is still under pressure to clear the failures of his short-lived 2012 campaign and re-introduce himself to voters to show—not just tell—the lessons he has learned. In the early going, his efforts seem to be resonating. 

“No likely 2016 candidate has worked harder and campaigned more aggressively in Iowa than Perry has,” writes Iowa Republican strategist Craig Robinson, who has seen the governor at various stops around the state over the past several months.

“The work he has done to be in a place where Iowa Republicans will give him a second chance is a tremendous accomplishment by itself,” Robinson writes. “But if Perry can continue to convince Iowans to give him a second chance, he can be a real contender in Iowa.”

Perry placed fifth in Iowa and and seventh in New Hampshire in 2012. He dropped out of the race right before the South Carolina primary. Without a clear pathway to continue, Perry exited five months after he got in, throwing his support to Newt Gingrich, who won the primary there after a rave debate performance. But the governor is ready to play in the Palmetto State again, hoping to attract the range of conservatives there. And, he figures, there is nowhere to go, really, than up. 

Finished With Fire Hoses

“We can’t do it any worse than we did it last time … everything started with a fire hose down our mouth and we started bleeding like water,” says Katon Dawson, a former South Carolina GOP chair who is advising Perry’s likely campaign.

In South Carolina in particular, Dawson says, “It’s not just his charm and charisma, but his ability to cross-pollinate between multiple factions of the GOP when only the base is going to show up. “

“I’ve never seen our base quite this fractionalized on different issues: from border security, to foreign affairs and deficit spending,” Dawson says, arguing that Perry can now appeal on several issues.

The biggest difference Dawson sees in Perry now is that he is in physically good shape. The governor was still recovering from back surgery when he announced his presidential campaign in 2011. Perry has been open about his fitness and routines and aides say he is in his best-ever shape for the campaign. Even when they are traveling, Perry is the first one to hit the gym, Dawson says.

While Perry has spent the past several years getting into mental and physical shape, his campaign skills need no sharpening. And without the obligations of the governor’s office to distract him in critical moments, Perry is free to travel and campaign whenever and wherever he needs.

Advisers say Perry’s retail skills and likability factor, along with his Texas record, will help propel the governor through the early states. And, Dawson says, primary voters “will learn to trust him.”

But with a flexible, agile, rested and ready Perry 2.0 comes twice the pressure. There is little room for error this time around, especially since, out of the field of candidates, he has had the most time to prepare. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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