Could Rick Perry be the next US president?
Texas governor, Tea Party favourite and serial election winner ready to enter Republican field on a ticket of small government
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There is much that infuriates Democrats about the stridently rightwing governor of Texas, Rick Perry.
Some are still smarting at the betrayal of the man who chaired Al Gore's 1988 election campaign in Texas and then jumped ship to the Republicans. Others are bitter at his embrace of the Tea Party's anti-government animus and the cuts to his state's education and health services it has wrought.
Many dismiss Perry as a "dumb ass" so driven by ideology that he recently vetoed a bill banning text messaging while driving on the grounds that it amounted to "government micromanagement" of people's lives.
But what really sticks in the Democrats craw is how Texas's longest-serving governor has gone on winning elections even as one of the most divisive leaders in the state's history. What they cannot agree on is whether it is through a masterly grasp of politics or an astonishing run of good luck.
Now Perry, 61, is about to wade in to next year's presidential race as a crusader against a government in Washington he portrays as an anti-American conspiracy – a position that has already won him the heart of the Tea Party movement.
After weeks of increasingly strong hints that he will seek the Republican nomination, including last Saturday's prayer rally at a Houston stadium, Perry is expected to seize on the fear that the US economy is headed back to recession by announcing his intention to run this weekend.
He is likely to move towards the front of a lacklustre field of Republican contenders by contrasting Barack Obama's economic management with his claim as Texas governor to have hit on a winning formula of creating jobs and balancing the state budget. It also helps that he is a handsome, religious, social conservative who is not Sarah Palin.
The prospect of a Perry candidacy delights and rattles Democrats. They say he is too extreme to win the middle ground he needs to beat Obama. He sneers at George W Bush's presidency as too liberal.
But then there is Perry's unnerving record of winning elections that his opponents were certain he would lose.
"He's the luckiest politician that ever walked the face of the Earth," said Chris Bell, a former congressman who ran against Perry for governor five years ago. "Luck has a lot to do with success in politics – good timing, right circumstances, all play in to the likelihood of success and he has been very opportunistic throughout the past couple of decades and it has served him well."
But Ted Delisi, a longtime Republican campaign consultant and adviser to Perry, says the governor has benefited less from good fortune than from opponents who persistently underestimate a formidable politician.
"[The golfer] Ben Hogan's got a great line: the more I practice the luckier I am. Perry has been vastly underestimated in almost every Texas race that he's been engaged in," he said. "The governor benefits from his opponents not believing that he's going to be as good or as disciplined as he's been. But I also think he has a pretty good sense of what the average voter cares about."
Perry fits the image of a Texas politician that the privileged, New England-educated Bush, who was the state's governor before him, worked to cultivate. Perry was born into a house without indoor plumbing in a rural backwater, Paint Creek in west Texas, where his father was a cotton farmer. He likes to tell how his mother made his underwear even after he went to college to study animal science.
While Bush served briefly in the Texas air national guard and avoided being sent to Vietnam, Perry served five years as an air force pilot. He then went into farming with his father until, in 1984, he won a seat in the state legislature as a Democrat.
He quickly made a mark as an energetic legislator and, although he was never on the liberal wing of the party, he backed Gore in the 1988 presidential primaries and chaired his campaign in Texas.
A year later Perry jumped ship as the Democratic party foundered in the south with the mass desertion of white voters to Ronald Reagan's Republicans. Perry began an unceasing journey to the right that caught the eye of Karl Rove, the Republican strategist who later led Bush in to the White House. Rove guided Perry through an unexpected victory over a popular incumbent to become agriculture commissioner and then steered him into the lieutenant governor's post in 1998.
That positioned Perry for another stroke of good fortune when he moved in to the governor's mansion without an election after Bush resigned in 2000 to run for president.
But it was Perry's decade as governor that marked him out from Bush, who was popular for reaching across the political divide to co-operate with Democrats.
"I first met Rick Perry in '89," said Harold Cook, a Democratic party strategist. "He was a conservative Democrat house member, a very affable guy. Wasn't ideological at all. If you'd told me then he would switch parties and become a Republican I wouldn't have been surprised at all. But if you'd told me he'd be the most partisan rightwing governor in Texas history, I'd have said you were crazy.
"For the most part he's unencumbered by conscience. That's a real luxury. If you aren't worried about the right policy all that's left is for your political director to tell you what's unpopular. We who are involved in Texas politics are all just props in Rick Perry's movie. When his priorities are just picked out of a hat based on what Republican primary voters want, we're bit players."
The pillars of Perry's politics are states' rights and small government – an intertwined philosophy embraced by many Americans, Republican and Democrat, disaffected with what they see as too much power, spending and taxation by Washington.
Late last year, Perry published a book dramatically called Fed Up! in which he portrays Americans as increasingly oppressed by measures such as healthcare and environmental legislation, legalised abortion and out of control spending by an elitist federal government.
"Something is terribly wrong. There is a sense among Americans that the world we have always known is in danger of being turned upside down," he wrote. "We sense that our way of life and, perhaps more importantly, our ability to decide how we shall live, is no longer in our control but in the control of an increasingly powerful and oppressive national government."
Perry's campaign to distance himself from Washington has included the public airing of criticism of Bush's years in the White House as a betrayal of the fiscal conservative cause.
The Texas governor's antidote is small government and a return of power to the states. Two years ago, he caused a storm when he suggested to an anti-tax rally that Texas could break from the rest of the US.
The statement was met with mirth and contempt in the halls of Congress and Perry quickly clarified to say he was not advocating breaking up the union, but the point was made with the constituency he was playing to.
Through it all there have been regular predictions of Perry's political demise as opinion polls of Texas voters regularly showed support falling well below that once commanded by Bush as governor.
In 2006 he looked particularly vulnerable but then the governor's race split three ways and Perry slipped in with just 39% of the vote.
Four years later he again confounded predictions of defeat at the hands of one of Texas's Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, by portraying her success in directing federal spending to Texas as evidence that she were a Washington insider sucking Americans dry with taxes.
Now Perry is preparing to stride on to the national stage basking in the adulation of the Tea Party movement as head of a state that has weathered the economic downturn better than most through, the Texas governor argues, minimising government. He can boast that nearly 40% of all new jobs created in the US since the recession are in Texas.
"There's an element to which America has to lead the world out of an economic downturn and Texas has to lead our country out of an economic downturn," said Delisi.
That view is popular on the right of the Republican party. But what pushed Perry to the forefront as a potential presidential candidate at a party rally in New Orleans in June was a return to the assault on centralised government.
"Our goal is to displace the entrenched powers in Washington, restore the right balance between state and federal government," he told the rally. "We now live in this strange, inverted version of what our founders intended."
Cook scoffs at attempts by a man who has spent a quarter of a century inside the system to portray himself as an outsider, and his moves to claim credit for an economic environment in Texas that is a continuation of longstanding policies.
"Perry didn't invent the fact that we're a pro-business state. Yes, jobs have come here but a disproportionate percentage are low wage. Yes he's balanced the budget but it's on the back of the sick, the elderly and children, and public education and healthcare and the environment," he said
Perry's assault on education has generated considerable anger, even among some Republicans who view it as a false saving in a state with a large immigrant population.
The Texas legislature has cut the state's budget by $15bn (£9bn) – nearly 10% of spending – including a $4bn slice out of public education. Teachers are being dismissed and health services scaled back. Critics say the cuts are far deeper than what is required by the budget shortfall and that Perry is playing to a national audience.
That may appeal to Tea Party supporters but Bell said that once Perry's record comes under national scrutiny, many voters – not least the elderly and parents of school-age children – will recoil.
"When I was running for governor we would call Rick Perry the president of the 'thank God for Mississippi club' because if it wasn't for Mississippi we would have been last place in every category," he said.
Perry may also prove less palatable to the wider voting public once his other positions come under scrutiny. He proposes shutting the federal departments of education and energy, and advocates swifter and deeper cuts to the budget than those being proposed by even the most radical conservatives in Congress. He would repeal Obama's healthcare and environmental legislation.
He also takes a hard line on the death penalty in a country increasingly uncomfortable with executions. Perry vetoed a ban on capital punishment for those officially classified as "mentally retarded".
It will not help Perry with large parts of the country that he is another Christian evangelical from Texas when memories of George W Bush remain fresh.
But Perry's success or failure may ultimately hang on a matter far beyond his control – the national economy.
"There are sometimes when elections aren't about the status of the economy," said Delisi. "But it would just appear right now that the economy is by far the most pressing issue on voters minds. There are lots of other issues that could come up but this is one I think Governor Perry has a unique and special window to speak on."
With unemployment remaining stubbornly above 9%, the stock market free falling and the downgrading of the US's credit rating shaking confidence in Obama's economic strategy, Perry's luck may be holding up yet again.
Who is Rick Perry?
He was born in 1950 in a small farming community north of Abilene. Perry's father Joseph Ray Perry, a Democrat, was a Haskell County Commissioner, school board member and served as a tail gunner in the second world war.
Perry first entered politics in 1975 as a Democrat representative for a rural west Texas district in the state House of Representatives and chaired Al Gore's campaign in Texas during his 1988 bid for presidency. He joined the Republican Party in 1989, and was first elected to statewide office and served as Texas Commissioner for Agriculture for two terms. Perry was elected Lieutenant Governor of Texas in 1998 and two years later, in 2000, became the 47th Governor of Texas following George W Bush's resignation for presidency. Perry graduated from Texas A and M University in 1972 and married his wife Anita Thigpen in 1982 with whom he had two children Griffin and Sydney. In 2009, he married his wife Meredith.
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