Whether he runs or not, Texas Gov. Rick Perry commands plenty of attention on the 2016 Republican presidential stage, and he knows it.
He demanded a face-to-face meeting in Texas with President Obama to talk about the Mexico-U.S. border crisis. He also kept demanding, until the reluctant president gave him one, a televised, photographed, widely reported face-to-face meeting.
Barely taking time to catch his breath, Mr. Perry followed up with a headline-generating attack on Sen. Rand Paul’s stance on Iraq. As the longest continuously serving governor in U.S. history, Mr. Perry felt comfortable berating a U.S. senator considered to be a first-tier White House hopeful.
For a year now, Mr. Perry has been in full remedial mode for his campaign-killing gaffes in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, including when he couldn’t remember a Cabinet office he intended to zero out if he became president.
He has been grabbing the initiative and holding on to it from his ballyhooed visit to Israel last year to his performance in March at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where many activists proclaimed he gave one of the best speeches of the three-day event.
Now he is taking on one of his potential competitors in 2016 by jabbing Mr. Paul for being what the Texas governor called an “isolationist” outside the party tradition of Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower because of Mr. Paul’s opposition to further U.S. military action in Iraq.
Mr. Perry took to the op-ed page of The Washington Post on Friday to deliver a stinging attack on Mr. Paul by name, calling it “disheartening to hear fellow Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), suggest that our nation should ignore what’s happening in Iraq.”
In his response, published Monday in Politico under the headline “Rick Perry is Dead Wrong,” Mr. Paul took an unusually personal tack, saying of the Texan that “apparently his new glasses haven’t altered his perception of the world, or allowed him to see it any more clearly.”
“With 60,000 foreign children streaming across the Texas border, I am surprised Governor Perry has apparently still found time to mischaracterize and attack my foreign policy,” Mr. Paul wrote.
Political observers think Mr. Perry is wily for targeting Mr. Paul because he went after a legislator and not a fellow gubernatorial prospect such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker or Florida’s Jeb Bush, a former governor with plenty of clout among the Republican establishment and major donors.
Whatever casual observers see in this Texan, it’s clear he has no plans when his governor’s tenure ends this year to fade into the sunset like a white-hat cowboy in a spaghetti Western.
Like his predecessor in the Austin gubernatorial mansion, George W. Bush, Mr. Perry strikes people as a touchy-feely guy who projects no airs about himself. He’s just “Rick” and he’s just as likely to throw an arm around a visitor’s neck for a quick wrestling gesture as he is to bend slightly at the waist in greeting a female visitor.
He can do either without looking like a politician showing off — all the more to his advantage because he is, of course, a politician showing off.
His attack on Mr. Paul for being skeptical about interventionism in foreign policy may not sit as well with a Republican electorate that is less hawkish than it used to be.
Indeed, Mr. Paul noted that widespread popular opposition to involvement in Iraq means that “it’s time we finally retire that pejorative” term “isolationist.”
For all his personal charm, Mr. Perry may be at odds with an important segment of his base: young evangelicals who may dislike his support of a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage or his comparison — which he recently reiterated — of homosexuality to alcoholism.
He also alienated some “rule of law” conservatives by supporting in-state tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants who slipped across the U.S. border. But that position is shared by a surprisingly large number of self-described conservatives who tend to open up on the subject only to trusted friends and acquaintances.
Where Mr. Perry has clear common ground with his party’s base is his demand that Mr. Obama dispatch the National Guard to the border to end the invasion of unaccompanied Central American children, as well as the lieutenants of the foreign crime cartels.
On immigration, he has shown you can talk tough without sounding mean-spirited. He has repeated publicly his accusation that the children flooding the border are told to claim to American authorities that they are fleeing for their lives — escaping the murderous drug wars in El Salvador and other Central American countries.
That bold accusation seems to resonate with Republicans, independents and many Democrats who suspect collusion between the U.S. government and Latin American authorities as the only plausible explanation for the sudden inundation of the southern border by busloads of unaccompanied children.
Mr. Perry casts himself as the most aggressive and successful governor in personally persuading corporate leaders in the U.S. and around the world to relocate part or all of their operations to Texas.
Unknown to most people outside his state, he is something of a culture maven.
“There is no question that 10 to 15 years ago folks might have had a point in saying we were culturally and intellectually a backwater. Al Gore once said the air is brown here,” he told The Washington Times. “Well, today, we have won that battle, both in perception and substance. The cultural arts here have exploded. From zoos, to music, to museums, to theater. In Houston, we have more theater seats than any other city in America except New York.”
Mr. Perry’s strong religious faith has been a big part of his political career, but for him now, the economy is pre-eminent in the lives of Americans, whether religious or secular.
“Americans have to decide what is the most important to them: social issues, foreign policy, national security and other issues. But all those issues — many of them should be the purview of states, not the federal government,” he said in an interview before embarking for the Middle East last summer.
“You can’t have any of these if you do not take appropriate care of taxes, regulation, legal policies, so that there can be the revenues for those desires,” he said.