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Presidential contender Rick Perry rises, as GOP frets

Smiley, brash, and buoyed by the blessing of the Tea Party, Texas Governor Rick Perry has soared to the top of the field of Republicans vying to evict Obama from the White House. But some party leaders and strategists wonder if he is up to the task.


With his easy smile, southwestern twang, shoot-from-the-hip swagger, and tenure as governor of Texas, Republican presidential contender Rick Perry begs inevitable comparisons to a deeply unpopular US commander-in-chief from the recent past.

Similarities to George W. Bush, however, have not prevented him from surging to the top of the field of right-wing politicians clamouring to unseat President Barack Obama; Perry stole former frontrunner Mitt Romney’s lead in the polls and much of his press coverage soon after announcing his candidacy just over a month ago.

Indeed, the Texas governor has injected a shot of enthusiasm into the race, offering Republican voters a fiscal and social conservative with the charisma and common touch Romney struggles to project and the political experience that the other buzzed-about candidate, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, lacks.

But Perry has also stirred unease among party leaders and strategists who fret that he won’t appeal to the independents and moderates he will need to beat Obama. The right’s jittery reaction to Perry’s candidacy and Perry’s increasingly pronounced rivalry with Romney reflect the tug-of-war being waged at the heart of the Republican party between newly energised, Tea Party-influenced conservatives and “establishment” Republicans.

‘Bold and provocative’, but to a fault?

Perry’s path to a candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination had unlikely beginnings. He grew up in the largely Democratic West Texas town of Paint Creek, and was elected as a Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984. Four years later, Perry broadened his involvement in Democratic politics by chairing the Texas operation of Al Gore’s first presidential campaign. In 1989, with Gore’s bid having failed, Perry switched parties and began a gradual climb through the state’s Republican ranks.

Today, Perry is not only the longest-serving governor of Texas – since taking over from George W. Bush in 2000, he has been elected to three terms. He is also what Brookings Institution government scholar Darrell West calls a “bold and provocative candidate” for the Republican presidential nomination, known for his anti-Washington rhetoric and formidable campaigning and fundraising capacity.

When running for re-election as Texas governor in 2010, Perry fought off challengers from within his own party by positioning himself as an outsider running against Republicans steeped in DC politics. The image helped him secure the support of Tea Party conservatives, and he went on to win the race with nearly 55 percent of the vote.

“[Perry] takes strong positions and then doubles down when challenged,” assessed West. “He seeks to tap into populist anger with politics as usual….It helps him campaign as a strong leader and someone who can change the status quo.” The approach looks to be paying off: a New York Times/CBS poll released last week was the latest to have Perry decisively ahead of Romney in Republican voter preferences for the presidency. And Gallup surveys have consistently shown Perry garnering some of the highest favourability ratings among the Republican contenders.

But according to West, “Perry’s provocative issue positions and Texas swagger….are both a strength and a weakness” in the eyes of top party strategists who are mindful of reclaiming moderate Republicans and independents who voted for Obama in 2008. The recent endorsement of Mitt Romney by Tim Pawlenty, himself a former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, was seen as an indication of the Republican establishment’s discomfort with Perry. “The establishment favours Romney, because it believes he has a better shot at defeating Obama,” West explained.

Several party fixtures are increasingly worried that Perry’s anti-government views such as his recent comments calling Social Security programs “a failure” and a “Ponzi scheme” may be too extreme for mainstream America and could send moderate Republicans and independents back into Obama’s arms. There was alarm on both sides of the political spectrum when in August, Perry labelled Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy “almost treacherous or treasonous”, adding that Bernanke would have received “pretty ugly” treatment in Texas. Former Bush advisor Karl Rove voiced a curt assessment of Perry’s comment in an interview with Fox News: “You don’t accuse the chairman of the Federal Reserve of being a traitor to his country.”

A ‘chequered record’

Another red flag Darrell West points to in Perry’s candidacy is what he calls a “chequered” record as governor of Texas. In 2001, Perry signed a law authorising children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas’s public universities; ten years later, he campaigned for a bill that would allow police to question any person they stop about his or her immigration status. The governor also issued a 2007 executive order requiring the vaccination of young girls in Texas against HPV, the virus known to cause sexually transmitted diseases linked to cervical cancer. Some of Perry’s rivals for the presidential nomination say that in doing so, the governor sold out his anti-big-government principles in exchange for donations from the drug company providing the vaccine.

Perry has tried to keep attention on his economic accomplishments in Texas; he has boasted of leading the state away from recession and toward job growth by refusing to raise taxes and by tightening the budget with $15 billion in cuts (mainly from education and healthcare services). But even that part of Perry’s record has come under intense scrutiny, with many economists and Mitt Romney himself signalling high unemployment and poverty rates in Texas. These critics argue that the state’s job growth can be explained by a swelling population and loose labour regulations.

Compounding those concerns are murmurs among right-wing analysts that Perry’s shaky debate skills could prove severely problematic if he were to face Obama in televised face-offs. During the last Republican debate, Mike Murphy, a former advisor to John McCain, tweeted: “Listening to Perry try to a put a complicated policy sentence together is like watching a chimp play with a locked suitcase.”

But not all experts think the Republican establishment should lose sleep over these criticisms. “Perry is ideologically and stylistically to the right of Romney on many things, but their positions are reasonably close,” John Fortier, a political scientist at the non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center, noted. Above all, with a floundering economy and flagging poll numbers, Obama is vulnerable – an inescapable fact that leads Fortier to conclude: “Yes, Perry is electable.”

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