How ready is Rick Perry to run for president?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a presidential-election infrastructure ready to go, say insiders. His appeal to Christian conservatives and the business community position him as a strong, if late, challenger.

Erika Rich / The Daily Texan / AP
Texas Gov. Rick Perry gives a closing address at The Response, a day of public prayer and fasting at Houston's Reliant Stadium that drew roughly 30,000 people, on Aug. 6. Perry attended the daylong prayer rally despite criticism that the event inappropriately mixes religion and politics.

Is Rick Perry ready?

The Texas governor has already made clear, via leaks from aides to the media, that he will effectively announce his intention to run for president Saturday. First, Gov. Rick Perry is appearing before a conservative bloggers’ convention in South Carolina, then he immediately flies to New Hampshire for an event in a GOP activist’s home. The next day he comes to Iowa, completing the trifecta of earliest-nominating states.

But there’s more to running for president than throwing your (10-gallon) hat in the ring. There’s staff to assemble and donors to contact. Governor Perry has made serious headway on those fronts, and the response has been positive, Republican insiders say. And even if he’s a bit behind the already-declared candidates in fund-raising and in setting up field operations in the early states, they expect Perry will catch up.

“It sounds like [Perry’s advisers] have done a lot of ground work, such that they can turn a switch on,” says Chip Felkel, a Republican strategist based in Greenville, S.C. "I don’t think they’d make the announcement if they hadn’t.”

Furthermore, he says, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is an unusually weak front-runner for a party that usually goes into an election cycle with a fair idea of who will win the nomination. And many GOP primary voters remain undecided or willing to change horses. Ditto party activists.

“There are still a lot of operatives out there who are not wholly committed anywhere,” says Mr. Felkel. “I think Perry will appeal to those people.”

Part of Perry’s strength is that he combines long executive experience with a strong job-creation record as governor of a big state – something none of the declared candidates have. The charismatic Perry also appeals to tea party activists and to religious conservatives, who could watch his open expressions of faith at his big Houston prayer rally last weekend and feel at home. Even if moderates were left uneasy by the Houston event, the party’s energy is in its conservative wing.

Perry risks insulting Iowa Republicans by deflecting attention away from Saturday’s straw poll in Ames – the first big test of much of the Republican field, which is being rendered less relevant by Perry’s decision not to enter the race in time to compete there. But canceling his long-planned appearance before the bloggers would have hurt him more with an important audience, says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.

“The one thing about Perry is, he’s someone who does his homework before he enters a race,” says Mr. O’Connell, chairman of Civic Forum PAC. “He’s time and again shown himself to be our toughest campaigner – look at how easily he dismantled Kay Bailey Hutchison. And the fact that he’s going to go out there and maybe announce ... means two things: It means he sees the opening and it means he’s got the money.”

Senator Hutchison challenged Perry for the governorship last year in the GOP primary, and lost by more than 20 points. Still, someone who has been at the top of Texas politics as long as Perry has – 10-and-a-half years – will have a thing or two to answer for when he hits the national stage. There’s his suggestion two years ago that he was open to the idea of Texas seceding from the union. There are his state’s cuts to education funding and high dropout rate. Just recently, he said he supports the right of states to allow gay marriage, then expressed support for a constitutional amendment to ban it.

On the messaging front, he will have to show discipline like never before. This is his first campaign on the national stage, and what works in the Southwest and Southeast may not work in other parts of the country. He’s also stepping into a fully engaged race, with the media glare shining bright and little chance to stumble without making headlines.

But Perry’s likely entry comes amid auspicious signs. Of all the declared and potential GOP presidential candidates, Perry has the highest “positive intensity” score in the Gallup poll. That’s the measure of Republican voters with a strong favorable opinion of him minus those with a strongly unfavorable opinion. For Perry, the number is 23. The figure is calculated based only on GOP voters who know who he is – and for now, his name ID is in the 55 percent range.

Once he announces, name ID will grow. The trick for Perry will be to maintain that positive intensity. But for now, it’s good enough to make him second only to Mr. Romney for the GOP nomination, in recent national polls of Republican voters.

In South Carolina, whose early 2012 primary will come right after Iowa and New Hampshire, political scientist Jim Guth doesn’t see much Perry organization yet, but if he does run, he’ll have a ready-made audience.

“I think Perry sweeps away the other potential appellants for the Christian right side, at least,” including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, says Professor Guth, who teaches at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. “He has a good chance of getting a good bit of conservative business support as well. In South Carolina, that’s the secret to winning the primary. You need both Christian conservatives and a significant appeal to the business community.”

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