Texas governor Rick Perry looks, at the moment, like the man many Republicans have been waiting for. Perry has yet to enter the presidential race - he looks likely to do so in August - but he is already polling close to ostensible frontrunner Mitt Romney.
The buzz around Perry isn't just driven by the polling. It's grounded in the fact that Perry could potentially bridge the divide between the Tea Party conservatives and the party establishment. To borrow a phrase from Perry's predecessor in the Texas governor's office, who went on to bigger things: Perry could be a uniter, not a divider, that the GOP is desperate to find.
Consider: Romney, like fellow Massachusetts politician John Kerry before him, cannot seem to escape the perception that he is ultimately an establishment figure - and is thus viewed with skepticism (or worse) by many in the Tea Party and social conservative circles. Rep. Michele Bachmann, by contrast, is beloved by many Tea Partiers and social conservatives, but she's largely dismissed inside the Beltway as a fringe figure with little in the way of legislative accomplishment or policy chops.
Perry can potentially bridge that divide: He aggressively embraced the Tea Party as it was getting off the ground, pushing a message of limited federal government (he's a strong critic of the federal health care overhaul). And his Texas swagger - the often cowboy boot-clad governor once shot a coyote that menaced his puppy during a jog - doesn't hurt. In a McClatchy-Marist poll last month, Perry was the most popular GOP presidential contender among Tea Party supporters.
And Perry is an evangelical Christian who knows how to win over social conservatives through both his policies - he signed into law a bill mandating that a woman seeking an abortion see a sonogram first - and his public acts. On August 6, he's hosting a much-publicized
Yet Perry is also an establishment figure who is well-liked by top party figures. He runs the Republican Governor's Association, a post that affords him important contacts across the country and the ability to do favors that can eventually be called in, thanks in large part to the RGA's fundraising prowess. During Perry's long tenure in Austin, Texas has been one of the nation's few bright spots when it comes to job creation, affording Perry credibility in making the case to business leaders and average Americans that he be a better steward of the economy than President Obama. Perry would enter the race with an extensive donor network, a coterie of well-respected aides and the likely tacit support of a Republican establishment that sees Bachmann as a hopeless general election candidate and Romney as far from ideal.
But the enthusiasm over a possible Perry candidacy has thus far clouded one inconvenient truth: While the governor is currently the model of a Tea Party politician, his past includes plenty to give Tea Partiers and social conservatives pause if and when they decide to take a closer look.
That fact was highlighted last Thursday, when former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took a very pointed shot at Perry. "For all his new found commitment to hyper-conservatism," said the former GOP presidential candidate, "he'll get to explain why he supported pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage Rudy Guiliani last time."
Perry's support for Giuliani - whose moderation on social issues alienated social conservatives and contributed to his dramatic flameout in the 2008 presidential race - isn't his only potentially problematic endorsement. He doesn't much like to talk about it these days, but Perry was actually a Democrat until 1989; the year before he converted to the GOP, he served as Texas chairman for then-presidential candidate (and current target of conservative disdain) Al Gore.
Then there are the issues, chief among them immigration. Perry, who presides over a state with a large and growing Hispanic population. has been criticized by Texas Tea Party groups for not pushing hard enough to pass a "sanctuary city" ban and other hard-line immigration legislation. In 2001, he signed the Texas version of the DREAM Act allowing children of illegal immigrants access to in-state college tuition. As Arizona Sen. John McCain's reelection campaign illustrated last year, any perceived softness on immigration issues can become a major headache in a Republican primary.
There are niche issues that could hurt Perry, like his support for the (never-created) Trans-Texas Corridor, a toll-road despised by small-government types that would have meant the appropriation of an estimated 81,000 acres of rural land. Or the executive order he signed in 2007 requiring that Texas sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus, a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. (The order was ultimately blocked, but the order outraged many conservatives.)
And then there's the elephant in the room: Texas' debt problem. In the 2010 governor's race, Democrat Bill White pointed out that Texas' debt has doubled under Perry. Since 2001, according to the Star-Telegram's Mitchell Schnurman, Texas' debt has grown at a faster rate than that of the U.S. government. Perry assumed office in December 2000.
All this could lead Republican voters to the same conclusion about Perry that many have made about Romney, whose position on a number of issues has shifted over the years: That he is a political opportunist without core beliefs. Some conservative bloggers have already seized on a list of 14 reasons Perry "would be a really, really bad president." The list points to many of the issues mentioned above as well as tax increases. One blogger, citing the list, derides Perry as "a big-time globalist."
Perry's past breaks with Tea Party-orthodoxy could potentially stay below-the-radar if he enters the race. But Perry's rivals for the nomination are unlikely to ignore them, particularly if Perry is as strong a candidate as he looks. The question for Perry, if he runs, is whether he will be able to convince Tea Partiers and the rest of the GOP base that, occasional missteps notwithstanding, he is ultimately one of their own.