Thomas Fitzgerald: The Perry query

Are swing voters ready yet to back another swaggering Texas governor?

Posted: August 14, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa - You could almost hear the squeaking of the leather from 931 miles away as Texas Gov. Rick Perry saddled up to ride to the rescue of the Republican Party, packing the .380 Ruger he once used to shoot a coyote who was "menacing my puppy" during a morning jog.

To a big slice of the GOP base, Perry is just the kind of charismatic, blunt conservative that the party's presidential field needs to catch fire.

Yet many leaders and strategists in the party elite are fretting over Perry, who announced his candidacy Saturday.

They fear that independents and even some moderate Republicans, needed to win swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, might not be comfortable voting for another swaggering Texas governor so soon after the nation's experience with the last one. (Two wars, an unfunded Medicare drug benefit, tax cuts for the rich, huge deficits, that binary view of the world.)

"I think there's Texas fatigue in Ohio," former state GOP chairman Bob Bennett, a member of the Republican National Committee, told Politico. "I've mentioned Rick Perry to a bunch of people, and he frankly comes up a blank. . . . From a grassroots standpoint in Ohio, I don't see much support, and I don't see much excitement about it."

Before Perry got in, there was no strong Southern presence in the race. He's a different person from former President George W. Bush - and the two don't even like each other much - but if you close your eyes, Perry sounds familiar. He has expressed some neo-Confederate views and suggested two years ago that if Washington kept up its meddling ways, it might be time for Texas to secede from the union. Does Perry's appeal cross cultures? Will he translate in Macomb County, Mich., or Montgomery County, Pa.?

"Texas is far from Pennsylvania culturally. We don't really relate," Rob Gleason, the Pennsylvania GOP chairman, said in an interview. "We just don't know Gov. Perry." Gleason has no doubt Perry will appeal to some Pennsylvania voters, but "I am concerned with how independents, especially in the Southeast, would react, and Democrats, too."

Perry supporters say his record as governor will play well everywhere, in an election dominated by the economy and job loss. Texas has enjoyed more job growth than any other state, and polls show swing voters have soured on President Obama's handling of the economy.

"For Republicans to win, we've got to have the least controversial and most competent nominee possible in order to keep the focus on the president as the issue," said William J. Green, a GOP consultant from Pittsburgh.

The last Republican to carry Pennsylvania was George H.W. Bush in 1988; with his preppy "burgers-and-bloodies" barbecues on the terrace at Kennebunkport, he was the embodiment of a certain kind of country-club Republican. He was uncomfortable with displays of religious faith; he even raised taxes when it seemed necessary to reduce deficits! (Huge mistake.)

The younger Bush lost Pennsylvania twice, in large measure because the socially tolerant swing voters in the suburbs feared he was too close to the religious right.

Perry is more so.

He has said that if/when he runs for president, it will be because God called upon him. Last weekend, when Perry staged a prayer rally (billed as "Christians only") in a Houston stadium, he had help from some far-right pastors who have referred to gays as "domestic terrorists," called the Statue of Liberty a "demonic idol," and said Hurricane Katrina was heavenly retribution for New Orleans' hosting a gay-rights event.

Perry's favorite amendment is the 10th, which reserves for the states powers not granted specifically to the federal government. In 2009, 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?"

He got in trouble lately with the religious right when he said his belief in states' rights meant that New York's legalization of gay marriage was "their business . . . their call." He quickly amended his position to say the definition of marriage was too important to be left up to states.

All this is beside the point, said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant: "They talk about 'a guy you want to have a beer with,' and that's Perry's appeal. He's very down-to-earth. They used to ask if Ronald Reagan could win in Pennsylvania because he was a 'cowboy' from out West. I was an early Reagan guy, and I heard all the time that my political career was over."

Texas fatigue doesn't faze Gerow. He predicts that by the time 2012 rolls around, voters weary of another president will need a cure for "Illinois fatigue."

Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718,,

or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent,"



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