- Associated Press - Thursday, August 14, 2014

(For use by New York Times News Service Clients)

c.2013 Houston Chronicle< AUSTIN - When Texas Gov. Rick Perry teamed up with Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Hannah Ferguson last week to help launch a new Thickburger at a Carl's Jr. restaurant in South Austin, many in the small crowd on hand seemed puzzled.

”The governor is cutting the ribbon for a burger? What’s with that?” said Angie Salazar, an Austin software engineer who stopped to see what the crowd was all about. “Maybe he’ll tell us whether he’s running for president.”

It was not to be, even though the Carl’s Jr. CEO and a Houston charity director said during the late-morning event that they hoped he would run in 2016.

For Perry, the off-beat announcement provided another chance for Texas’ longest serving chief executive to extoll the successes of the Lone Star State’s booming economy, burnishing his credentials as a proven can-do politician who deserves another shot at the GOP nomination, after an ‘oops’ moment and other missteps ended his first try two years ago.

Fueled by the ongoing border crisis and his headline-grabbing decision two weeks ago to send in National Guard troops, Perry has become a household name again, at a time when all signs seem to indicate he will run again for president in 2016.

In recent months, he has crisscrossed the country to help elect Republicans in seven states from South Carolina to Pennsylvania, Illinois to California. More recently, he has become a familiar face on national TV news shows and political events, even taking to the State Fair soapbox in Iowa, a traditional site for candidates likely to run for president.

On the border, his ballcap turned backwards, he has patrolled the border with conservative TV host Sean Hannity. In Iowa, his Twitter feed features photos of him posing with tractors, VFW members, politicians, even a contestant from The Bachelor who was at the Iowa State Fair. In Dallas, he attended a Dallas Stands with Israel Rally. In Aspen, he posed with New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino.

On Wednesday, Perry addressed Guard soldiers at Camp Swift, telling them he’s not interested in “TV ratings” despite inviting the news media to the event.

This fall, Perry is scheduled to travel to Asia for the World Economic Summit and to Europe, trips that could elevate his profile even more.

Perry has made no secret of the fact he is seriously considering another presidential run. And political observers agree that his busy travel schedule seems to hint he is more than just considering.

”This is no surprise,” said James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo in New York and expert on presidential campaigns. “At this stage, with a long way to go before the primaries, you want to be out there to tell activists and donors that you’re at the game, near the head of the pack … For someone who fell off the national stage two years ago, he’s regained national visibility. He’s moving into the range of ‘We should give him a second chance.’”

In a Wednesday interview with Fox News, asked whether his travels hinted at his intentions, Perry said only that he was just working to elect Republicans. “I want to see America change trajectory,” he said, criticizing the “failure of leadership” in Washington, a theme that underscores his outsider status over potential GOP rivals, including U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, of Texas, and Rand Paul, of Kentucky.

For now, the tack seems to be working for Perry.

”Iowans are meeting the new Rick Perry and liking what they see. This is not the same man who joined the presidential race in August of 2011 as the frontrunner and quickly plummeted. The ‘oops’ guy is gone,” reads a story about a recent Perry speech in The Iowa Republican, run by former state GOP political director Craig Robinson. “This new Rick Perry is animated. He speaks off-the-cuff. He cracks jokes. He brings audiences to their feet.”

Des Moines conservative radio talk show host Steve Deace explained Perry’s current ascension like this: “People can see there is an alpha male there they didn’t see last time. He was very good and extremely likeable.”

Political scientists say words like those are gold for Perry and other potential candidates.

”Right now, Gov. Perry and others who are looking at 2016 are coming in, helping Republican candidates in Iowa, but also making contacts in the state should they chose to run,” said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa who tracks presidential campaigning. “It keeps their name out there … Gov. Perry is clearly in a mode of rehabilitating himself, and he seems to be doing fairly well.”

Perry aides insist the governor is just promoting Texas’ economic successes and his strong stance on border security.

”In light of continued federal inaction to secure our border, Gov. Perry has stepped up to protect the residents of Texas and our country from criminal aliens, narco-traffickers and transnational gangs,” Perry spokesman Travis Considine said.

Last week, on his sixth trip to Iowa in recent weeks, Perry was making the rounds with Cruz, Paul, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum among them.

At the moment, many agree, Perry seems to have an edge. As Campbell sees it, Perry “has baggage to overcome from 2012, but he also has the immigration that he’s almost uniquely suited to benefit from.”

That benefit is playing out in keeping his name before the public.

”His goal at this point is proving that the Rick Perry people saw in 2012 was not the real Rick Perry,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “The more he is out there, the more he has the chance to show Republican voters he is savvy, effective, a leader.”

Then, too, may come endorsements - like the two Perry garnered at the Austin burger joint last week.

In introducing Perry, Andrew Puzder, the CEO of the Carl’s Jr. chain and a longtime supporter, called Perry “America’s best governor,” who he said would make a good presidential candidate, should he decide to run. Terry Jung, executive director of the Houston-based Lone Survivor Foundation that will benefit from a promotion tied to the Carl’s Jr. burger sales, echoed the sentiment.

”We have the best governor in the country,” Jung said, turning to look at Perry outside the restaurant. “If I had my way, we would be looking at the next commander in chief.” XXX - End of Story<3D>

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