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Politico: GOP ponders Perry: Savior or flop?
To a sizable slice of the Republican base, Rick Perry looks like the conservative, charismatic presidential candidate they have been waiting for in the 2012 campaign.
To many GOP elites, however, the Texan looks more like a general election flop in the making.
Few Republicans will say as much in public, for fear of offending the conservative grassroots or antagonizing Perry, a powerful official who's known to hold a grudge. But in private, in some quarters of the party a sense of apprehension has set in about the prospect of another Texas governor's candidacy.
Even operatives who believe Perry would bring significant assets to the 2012 campaign - his job-creation record among them - acknowledge that there are real doubts about whether a brash, Southern hard-liner like Perry can win votes in the crucial swing states needed to capture the White House.
"I think there's Texas fatigue in Ohio," said former Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett, a longtime party leader who sits on the Republican National Committee.
"I've mentioned Rick Perry to a bunch of people and he comes up, frankly, a blank," Bennett said. "From a grassroots standpoint in Ohio, I don't see much. I don't see much support and I don't see much excitement about it."
Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason explained that Perry has a "ways to go" when it comes to introducing himself to a national audience - "especially the independents and more moderate Republicans."
"Texas is really far from Pennsylvania, not just geographically. We don't relate at all," said Gleason, who urged Perry to "come and tell the people of Pennsylvania how he plans to create economic opportunity."
The questions aren't just coming from the swing states. In Washington, Republican insiders say that one of Perry's biggest challenges would be proving that his distinctly Texan style could translate into national appeal.
Charlie Black, the prominent GOP strategist and presidential campaign veteran, agreed that Perry has not been tested in an arena like the one he'd face in a presidential campaign.
"What we don't know about Gov. Perry is how he'll perform on the national stage. We know he's got a great record in Texas," Black said. "How well does he campaign in states that have different cultures? You know, non-Southern, non-Western states."
Added Black: "If he gets the nomination, he will have proven he can campaign effectively in different parts of the country.
Among Perry supporters, the case for the governor is clear: In an election focused on jobs and the economy, Perry has presided over more job growth than any other governor-an issue that resonates all over the map.
"The really compelling, overriding, driving issue in this campaign and this environment is jobs," said Dave Carney, Perry's chief political adviser. "The person who would be best qualified to go up against Obama is somebody who's done something about it."
Carney continued: "That's the difference between Obama and Perry and that's why, if he were to run, he would be the strongest general election candidate you could possibly come up with."
Still, many Republicans express alarm about the possibility of nominating a man whom several compared to a "Saturday Night Live" caricature - "Will Ferrell doing a George W. Bush imitation," as one state GOP chairman said.
Early national polls show Perry would instantly become a strong competitor in the GOP primary, starting out in second place and trailing Mitt Romney by just 5 percentage points, according to Gallup. But much of that lead comes from his strength among Southern voters, who called Perry their first-choice pick in the race.
One veteran GOP strategist said that multiple members of Congress had "expressed concerns about Perry's ability to compete in not only the traditional 10 to 12 swing states, but also some of the lean-Republican states."
The same state party chair, who spoke on condition of anonymity, voiced a worry that Perry hasn't been "thoroughly vetted" and predicted: "If he's the nominee, the first thing the White House is going to do is make an issue of secession."
Perry's 2009 comment - he said he didn't want to "dissolve" the Union, "but if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that?" - is already the most famous black mark on his political resume.
But Republicans say that's only the most obvious symptom of their core concern about Perry as a candidate: That he's a bombastic regional politician who might have a limited ability to appeal to swing voters.
Perry, who joined the GOP in the late 1980s as Texas was breaking to the right, has thrived throughout his political career by riding the Lone Star State's conservative tide. From his first statewide race for agriculture commissioner to his bruising reelection campaign last year, Perry has always made sure to be more conservative, more confrontational and, above all, more ostentatiously Texan than his chief opponents.
In other words: less appealing to the kind of voters who decide presidential campaigns, and who still have bad memories of the last Texas governor they elected to the White House.
Perry would also have to answer for parts of his record that have either never been fully scrutinized in Texas, or that might be far more problematic before a national audience.
Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man - Cameron Todd Willingham - and got this response from a primary voter: "It takes balls to execute an innocent man."
The Willingham case is just one episode in Perry's gubernatorial tenure that could be revived against him in the very different context of a national race, potentially compromising him in a general election. The opposition research file on Perry is huge and goes well beyond the best-known Perry controversies.
But even the greatest hits reel is bad enough: Perry issued a 2007 executive order mandating the human papillomavirus vaccine for sixth-grade girls, while Perry's former chief of staff lobbied for Merck, the only provider of the vaccine. He spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a rental mansion while the governor's residence underwent repairs. During his administration, the whole board of the state juvenile justice system resigned over allegations of covering up sexual abuse in detention centers. And that's before delving into a shaky state budget, which has included to-the-bone cuts in education and other programs suburban swing voters care about.
All that means Perry is hardly the "generic Republican" who President Obama struggles to beat in polls. That's what concerns Republicans who think nominating him instead of a blander, more stylistically mainstream candidate like Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty would be a gift to the incumbent.
Former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley, who said Perry's economic record could make him "formidable" as a national candidate, cautioned: "The question is, once you get past the primary is, can Rick Perry appeal to the moderate, the independent and swing voter? That's a very, very important question."
"That can be moderated, to some degree, in a general election, if the issues like fiscal conservatism and the debt crisis are so exacerbated that voters are willing to take someone more to the right," Beasley added.
Dan Schnur, a former adviser to John McCain's 2000 campaign who now directs the University of Southern California's Jesse M. Unruh Institute, was less ambivalent.
"If it's too soon for Jeb to run for president, it might be a little quick for swing voters to elect another Texas governor," said Schnur. "You'd have to consider Perry to be virtually a co-frontrunner for the nomination . A general election would be a much tougher fight."
One thing Republicans agree on is that if Perry wants to jump into the 2012 campaign, he should do it soon, and be prepared to weather an immediate onslaught against his record. The longer he puts off a decision, the shorter the amount of time he'll have to win over a national primary audience and the closer to perfect his campaign will have to be.
In the meantime, expectations for Perry as a GOP primary candidate have climbed ever upward. Nelson Warfield, a GOP strategist who produced Fred Thompson's ads in 2007, said Perry was at risk of falling into the same trap as the former Tennessee senator.
"There's a common dynamic: everyone says Republicans are royalists and we select [the person] who's next in line in the hierarchy. We also have a tradition of being dissatisfied with the heir apparent," he said, mentioning Thompson and Colin Powell's 1996 presidential flirtation. "There is a fundamental problem for a candidate like Perry: As soon as he starts the race he starts to disappoint people who thought he believed things he doesn't."
Another GOP veteran quipped: "Unless he walks on water, how does he meet the expectations that have been created for him?"
Carney, Perry's New Hampshire-based adviser, takes a bring-it-on attitude toward strategists in both parties who think the 2012 race will be fought over oppo hits and sectional fault lines.
"We look forward to hearing from the haters out there and those who think these distractions are really on the tops of the voters' minds," he said. "I have zero concerns about the general election, politically."
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