Rick Perry’s extreme makeover
By: Katie Glueck
April 20, 2014 05:30 PM EDT
It’s impossible to exorcise the memories of 2012. But Rick Perry is going all out to present a new and improved version of himself — the swaggering big-state governor of old, with a dash of seasoned wise man thrown in.
In the early months of 2014, his political team has booked him on one high-profile program after another: He’s joked with Jimmy Kimmel, charmed the “Morning Joe” crowd and wowed the Conservative Political Action Conference. The Texas Republican’s hip glasses are still earning approving media mentions long after he first donned them. And the possible 2016 candidate has spent time with early-state types in Iowa (and in late 2013, South Carolina), while also mixing it up in more exotic locales from Davos to Palau.
His carefully choreographed, so far gaffe-free reintroduction has two overriding goals: First, to remind voters of the Rick Perry who is the longest-serving governor in Lone Star State history, a political juggernaut who won 10 straight elections before stumbling in the national spotlight. And second, to get voters to forget, or at least not dwell on, his disastrous 2012 presidential bid.
“Where I have noticed it profoundly is in the last few weeks, the national TV appearances, whether he’s been on a number of Fox shows or Jimmy Kimmel and some of the others, he just seems like a very confident, upbeat and articulate spokesman for conservative policy and values,” said Ray Sullivan, a former Perry presidential campaign spokesman and chief of staff who joined the governor’s ranks in 1998. He has his own public-affairs firm now but is still close with the office. “He seems to be enjoying himself more today than any time I can remember.”
Smooth TV appearances aside, Perry has a ways to go to demonstrate he’s equipped to be a credible national candidate after his campaign imploded so publicly last time. He continues to be dogged by his infamous “oops” moment, when he forgot on national TV the third federal agency he said he wanted to eliminate. His relatively moderate views on immigration, anathema to many in the GOP base, haven’t changed. And the 2016 GOP primary field is bound to be more formidable than the relatively weak cast of contenders Perry couldn’t overcome two years ago.
“After the 2012 race, the bar’s pretty low,” said Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican consultant. If Perry can exceed expectations, Stutzman continued, “The opportunity is there, but the margin for error is small. He needs to outperform those perceptions immediately and dramatically or he looks like the same guy in ’12 that a lot of people were surprised about.”
Back home, there are whiffs of a potential problem for Perry, who recently hired a prominent defense attorney to represent him in an investigation into his funding veto for a state public-integrity unit. A grand jury was seated for the case last week, though it doesn’t appear likely that a ruling will be made anytime soon. Democratic groups have seized on the issue, and it is increasingly garnering attention in Texas and beyond, but Perry is cooperating with the probe and has denied wrongdoing.
Politically speaking, Perry’s allies argue that there will be two big differences between 2016 and 2012, should he run: He would be in better health. They note that his long recuperation from back surgery impeded his performance last time. And he would be much better-prepared than last time, when he entered the race late.
“There is no question he wasn’t ready when he jumped in the race in 2012; [after] he had back surgery, it didn’t go well,” said powerful Republican National Committeeman Henry Barbour. Now, “He’s healthy, he’s much better prepared, and he seems very comfortable in interviews and in articulating his views on what needs to happen.
Barbour, of Mississippi, is part of a small cadre of advisers that has been working for months to help prepare Perry for a possible bid. The group, a mix of Texas and national Republicans, is aiming to ensure that he’s making connections around the country and meeting with influential domestic and foreign policy thinkers to bolster his expertise in those areas.
The conversations are spearheaded by Jeff Miller — separately, the head of Americans for Economic Freedom, an independent group supportive of Perry and red-state governing policies — and also include Perry 2012 campaign manager Rob Johnson, and Terry Nelson and Rob Jesmer of FP1 Strategies, among others. Deirdre Delisi, a longtime Perry ally who has also served as his chief of staff, weighs in on political discussions on an informal basis, she said.
A source familiar with Perry’s political operation said the governor is in touch with donors “on a fairly regular basis” and that Perry is expected to travel to early voting states in the coming months. While in Iowa recently, he met with Bob Vander Plaats, an influential conservative leader who offered words of encouragement.
“He met a lot of Iowans and a lot of others last time on the campaign trail, and I think that will benefit him this time,” said Vander Plaats. “That and not starting out as the front-runner. He will have to work the campaign like I think it’s meant to be worked.”
During his last presidential run, Perry incurred wrath among the grass roots when he charged that those who disagree with his support for in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants in Texas lack “a heart.” With the benefit of time to prepare, people close to the governor say, he can more carefully think through his policy positions and the best ways of presenting them.
Perry, who was in the Republic of Palau assisting on a World War II missing-in-action project during reporting for this article, was unavailable for an interview.
Dave Carney, who was a longtime Perry political adviser before parting ways after the 2012 campaign, said Perry appears more comfortable and relaxed now and will benefit from the experience of running before. Still, Carney said, a different set of challenges awaits Perry.
“It’s very possible for him to change perceptions, but it’s certainly not easy, and it’s easy to slip back,” Carney said. Plus, “Ten other people will probably throw their hat in the ring. They’re not going to say, ‘Gov. Perry is in the race, so I’ll step aside.’”
For the moment, the governor — who once ended a television interview with the signoff “adios, mofo” — is burnishing his credentials as a statesman. That’s a big task: In the last cycle, his foes suggested that Perry was dumb, and even friends said that he was far from an intellectually curious wonk.
But two years later, one can find Perry weighing in on Russia and the Monroe Doctrine on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as the mostly liberal panel notes his “charm”; last fall, he visited England and Israel; and he has possible trips to Asia and India in the works. The Rick Perry who once said that the difference between himself and former President George W. Bush was that the latter went to Yale, in January posted on Twitter pictures of himself in Davos with people like Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust and Arianna Huffington, of the liberal-leaning Huffington Post.
Over the last year, he has also raised his national profile by taking increasingly publicized, aggressive economic missions to blue states and urging companies to relocate to Texas, a move that infuriates Democrats but endears him to conservatives. The booming Lone Star State economy, which remained resilient through the recession due to a variety of factors, is a central piece of Perry’s political narrative.
He also recently took his message to the liberal audience attending a Jimmy Kimmel interview in Austin, where the governor was initially greeted by a booing audience. His only reaction was to chuckle and crack a few jokes. And as the interview progressed, Perry earned cheers — especially when discussing reforms to the criminal justice system.
“You don’t want to ruin a kid’s life for having a joint,” he said in discussing how to punish marijuana users.
And the crowd was moved to good-natured applause when Perry answered a question about why he would potentially seek the presidency again.
“This is not the crowd I want to make” that announcement to, he said, to laughs and whoops. “You know, America is a great place for second chances, let’s just leave it at that.”
In front of a starkly different audience — the conservative activists at CPAC — Perry received a wildly enthusiastic reception that was topped, at the libertarian-leaning event, only by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).
“The biggest change I see in Perry,” said Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist with deep Texas ties, “is that he’s really [become] a happy warrior.”