Could Rick Perry be taken seriously as a presidential candidate in 2016?

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

If Rick Perry were to seek a quieter life after leaving office next January, none of his longtime aides and admirers would blame him.

Already a grandfather, the longest-serving governor in Texas history will by then have capped off three full decades in public office and will be just a couple of months shy of his 65th birthday.

There are weekend tailgates at Aggies games and hunting trips to attend, there's big-time money to be made in a cushy private-sector job, and an opportunity to kick up his boots a little for the first time in his adult life.

But as the end of Perry's 14-year tenure in the governor's mansion draws closer, it is becoming increasingly apparent that he is instead inclined to go out with a bang -- and give a run for president one more shot.

Perry has barnstormed Iowa and South Carolina in recent months and has more trips to early-voting states planned for the rest of the year. And he has not been particularly coy about the national ambitions, which appear only to have been fortified since his first presidential run -- an exercise in campaign trail futility rarely seen among frontrunners.

"America is a great place for second chances," Perry told Jimmy Kimmel in an interview earlier this week at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. "Let's just leave it at that."

As easy as it may be to dismiss the idea of a second White House bid by Perry, there is an undeniable truth in his observation about the appeal of a comeback story.

Comparisons to the successful second campaigns of Republican Presidents Nixon and Reagan are sure to surface in any Perry revival narrative. Still, neither of those predecessors' first runs was as calamitous as Perry's, which hit its nadir with his infamous "oops" debate moment, when he forgot the name of the third federal department he had promised to abolish. But that meltdown is precisely what the governor's allies believe could, counter-intuitively, work in his favor this time: He has nowhere to go but up.

More importantly, Perry's longtime confidants say, he has shown a determination in the run-up to 2016 to look in the mirror and improve himself in the areas that made him electoral kryptonite in 2012.

Perry also now has the benefit of having been around the block in a national election and is more at ease in situations that might have tripped him up in the past.

The Kimmel interview was a case in point. Upon taking the stage, he appeared entirely unfazed by the loud boos that rained down upon him from the left-leaning crowd. And throughout the interview, he was characteristically charming, as he transitioned from a well-received joke about the self-healing practices of Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson to making a serious point about his efforts to reform drug-sentencing laws in Texas.

By the time he shook hands with Kimmel at the end of the segment, the crowd's boos had shifted entirely to cheers. There may have been precious few Perry supporters in that crowd, but they couldn't help but like the guy sitting in front of them, who hadn't come across the way they'd expected.

"I don't know if I'd call it 'recrafting an image' as much as I would [say] working really hard to be a better communicator and messenger," Bob Haus, who ran Perry's presidential campaign in Iowa, said of the governor's recent appearances on the national stage. "For whatever he's going to ultimately do, he's used the experiences of 2012 to get better."

For Perry, "getting better" has as much to do with his physical health as it does his mental strength. Though not widely reported at the time, complications from back surgery in 2011 left him physically debilitated and in nagging pain, which proved to be yet another perilous ingredient in the toxic potion that was his 2012 campaign.

"We knew he was hurt," said Katon Dawson, Perry's South Carolina chairman in 2012 and still a close adviser. "We just didn't know how bad he was hurt."

By all accounts, Perry is now in great physical health and eager to tackle the grueling the campaign trail once again, only this time with more gusto.

His political advisors -- both old and new -- are being more circumspect, however.

New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Dave Carney, who served as Perry's top strategist from his 1998 campaign for lieutenant governor through his 2012 presidential bid, said that his recent conversations with the current members of Perry's inner circle suggest they are "really assessing this thing carefully."

That tack would be unremarkable, if not for how distinctly it contrasts with the seat-of-the-pants nature of Perry's previous run. By the time he waltzed into the Republican race in mid-August 2011, Perry had given relatively scant consideration to how he would hold on to his early lead in the polls after months of insisting that he had no interest whatsoever in running.

This time around, Team Perry's methodical approach figures to benefit the would-be candidate.

"What happened to him last time was physically and tactically waiting so long that it really put a damper on his ability to wage an aggressive, broad campaign," Carney said. "If they do this the way it looks like they're doing it, clearly they'll have time, and obviously those health issues are over with. Whether or not there's an opportunity out there, I don't know."

The question about opportunity is indeed the key one Perry faces.

Even if he is capable of being a more polished candidate in 2016 than he was in 2012, the jury is still out as to whether he has a clear lane to run in amid a far stronger field of likely candidates this time.

At CPAC last week, Perry opened the annual conservative confab on a lazy Thursday morning by bringing the house down with one of his most inspired speeches that anyone could remember.

Rick Perry is back, or so the buzz went in the media filing center at National Harbor. But that clamor lasted only until Perry finished in ninth place two days later in CPAC's presidential straw poll, winning just 3 percent of the vote.

If he does make the presidential plunge again, Perry will have a two-pronged story to tell that is similar to the one that made him an instant frontrunner two and a half years ago: his unparalleled record in creating jobs in his state and a deep-seated, longstanding commitment to limiting the power of the federal government.

It's a core message that is very much in step with rank-and-file Republican primary voters, but also one that has been replicated to varying degrees by the other likely GOP candidates. And almost all of them will be fresher faces, vying to lead a party that is looking for new leadership to take it out of the national electoral wilderness.

The odds may be stacked against Rick Perry 2.0, but his unrealized potential as a national candidate makes it foolish to rule him out.

  • Scott Conroy On Twitter»

    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.

Comments

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Watch Now

New Android App

For your Android phone and tablet, download the FREE redesigned app, featuring CBSN, live 24/7 news.

Download
The all new
CBS News App for Android® for iPad® for iPhone®
Fully redesigned. Featuring CBSN, 24/7 live news. Get the App