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July 28. 2011 8:28PM

Fergus Cullen: Is Rick Perry this primary's Fred Thompson?

THE BUZZ about Texas Gov. Rick Perry echoes the buzz about Fred Thompson four years ago. The field of Republican candidates is solid, but not enthralling. Voters want another choice. There’s room for a late entrant, a Southerner who can unite the base by appealing to social and fiscal conservatives.

The Thompson trailer was better than the movie, which ended like “Titanic,” not “The Hunt for Red October.” Thompson entered the race in September, proved a lousy candidate, and embarrassed himself with 1 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. The candidacy was better in theory than reality.

Dave Carney, the Hancock-based consultant who’s served as Perry’s political strategist since 1997, insists Perry is nothing like Thompson. He cites Perry’s executive experience as the nation’s longest-serving governor and describes Perry as “in the mold” of former New Hampshire governors Steve Merrill, Judd Gregg, and John Sununu: solid social conservatives who focused on fiscal issues.

Texas, like New Hampshire, has no income tax, and its yellow rose blossomed during Perry’s time in office. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas estimates that Texas accounts for 37 percent of all net U.S. jobs created during the tepid recovery. Texas’s population grew by nearly 21 percent in the last decade — twice the national average and nearly triple New Hampshire’s growth rate (7.2 percent).

Whether Perry has as much to do with Texas’ economic prosperity as its thriving oil and gas industry is a matter other candidates may dispute. Texas’s unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, a point below the national average, but well above New Hampshire’s 4.9 percent. Although he’s been elected governor three times, Perry earned a 39 percent plurality in 2006 and won with 55 percent in 2010, underwhelming given a red state and a strong Republican year. Perry’s job approval rating is 54 percent. Texans like Perry, but don’t love him.

Perry, 61, is a career politician who has held office continuously since his election as state representative — as a Democrat — in 1984. Following the path of many Texas conservatives, Perry switched parties in 1989, after serving as Texas chairman of the 1988 Al Gore presidential campaign. (Hard to believe now, but Gore was considered a conservative, family-values Democrat back then.) Perry will also have to explain his sympathetic words about Texas’ right to secede from the union, which takes the Tenth Amendment a little further than even most Tea Partiers would go.

Kevin Smith, the savvy leader of Cornerstone Action, the conservative New Hampshire group that will host Perry for a much-anticipated dinner in October, thinks Perry has an opening. “Whether he sells well here will depend on whether people hear more about his fiscal record or his social record,” Smith says.

If the campaign is about the Texas economy, Perry can do well. If it’s about Perry’s evangelicalism — in April, Perry issued an official state proclamation calling for three days of prayer for rain to end a Texas drought — he could turn off New Hampshire’s largely secular electorate.

“I love his Texas swagger,” House Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt of Salem says, but it comes with baggage. Democrats will brand any Republican as George W. Bush II, but why make it easy by nominating another Texas governor? Texas U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm did not sell with New Hampshire Republicans in 1996. Mississippi’s Haley Barbour chose not to test whether a Southern governor could connect with Granite Staters.

If Thompson underestimated how much time is needed to win over donors, elected officials, and activists, Carney does not. He sees the calendar and the enormous difficulty of organizing a national campaign as Perry’s biggest challenge. “We’re going to do in a couple hundred days what other candidates have taken years to do,” Carney says.

While other candidates cherry pick early states in which to compete, Carney hints that Perry will compete everywhere. “Control your own destiny, don’t hope your opponents grind each other up so you’re the last one standing,” Carney advises. He talks about amassing delegates in states that award them proportionally and doing well in primaries held in general-election swing states.

It’s talk that envisions being in the race long after the New Hampshire primary.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com.


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