By CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Should Rick Perry conclude that voter discontent has left him an opening to enter the presidential race, the longtime Texas governor would be among the GOP field's most conservative candidates.
Primary voters would get a skilled politician with TV anchorman looks, a Southern preacher's oratory and a cowboy's swagger, matched by a disarming candor and sense of humor. The former cotton farmer from the village of Paint Creek in West Texas has never lost an election in nearly three decades as a politician.
What they wouldn't get is a candidate whose politics are positioned to unite a Republican electorate that stretches from moderate pro-business fiscal conservatives to evangelical social conservatives, with the tea party falling somewhere along the spectrum.
"Texans, God love them, have that bigger-than-life persona about politics, and that doesn't necessarily play everywhere," said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican political consultant who has worked extensively in the Northeast and Midwest. "I haven't heard a lot of Republicans call Social Security a disease."
Perry has. He branded Social Security and other New Deal programs "the second big step in the march of socialism," according to a book published last year. The "first step" was a national income tax, which he has said stands alongside the direct election of U.S. senators as a major mistake among the amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
In the just-completed Texas legislative session, Perry's "emergency items" included laws that require a photo ID in order to vote, a sonogram before a woman had an abortion and enforcement of federal immigration laws by local police.
He rejects the idea of global warming and the theory of evolution, arguing for natural climate variations and intelligent design of the universe.
“I think he becomes a significant factor if he becomes a candidate. It could change the whole complexion of the Iowa caucus race.”Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad
In fact, he said last year when promoting his book, "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America From Washington," which was a state's rights treatise that railed against the federal government, that he's too conservative to run for national office.
"The best concrete evidence that I'm really not running for president is this book, because when you read this book, you're going to see me talking about issues that for someone running for public office, it's kind of been the third rail if you will," Perry told The Associated Press shortly after winning re-election in 2010.
Perry doesn't shy away from his deep conservatism. He embraces it with the same vigor with which he dismisses those who found his shooting of a coyote while the governor was jogging, or spending tens of thousands of campaign dollars on a luxury rental home unbecoming a state chief executive.
Working with the fundamentalist American Family Association, Perry urged people to participate in a day of prayer and fasting on Aug. 6, following the example of the Bible's book of Joel. Courting evangelical Christians always has been one of his core campaign strategies.
"When it comes to conservative social issues, it saddens me when sometimes my fellow Republicans duck and cover in the face of pressure from the left," Perry told the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans this year. "Our party cannot be all things to all people."
In the few polls that have included Perry, he ranks high among Republican primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Gov. Terry Branstad, R-Iowa, told The Associated Press on Saturday he thinks it's very likely that Perry will jump into the race and reshape the state's caucuses.
"I get the definite impression he's very likely to run," Branstad said, basing his opinion on a conversation the governors had Friday. "I think he becomes a significant factor if he becomes a candidate," Branstad said. "It could change the whole complexion of the Iowa caucus race."
Perry told The Des Moines Register that he would likely decide in two or three weeks.
"But I'm getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I've been called to do. This is what America needs," Perry said.
Should he run, Perry would seek the support of a wing of the party already courted by conservatives in important states such as Iowa. Those would-be rivals include U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a tea party favorite; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a favorite of anti-abortion activists; and former businessman Herman Cain.
That could split the vote of the party's conservative base, giving an opening to other Republicans seeking support across the GOP spectrum.
They include front-runner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has reversed positions on several issues conservatives hold dear; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, whose moderate positions on some issues make him a nonstarter for conservatives; and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is struggling to break out of the pack.
Unlike some of those candidates, Perry has been consistent on culturally conservative issues.
States' rights, however, is his signature issue.
In 2009, at one of the first rallies of a movement that would evolve into the tea party, he evoked the possibility that Texas might be better off seceding from the Union if what he called federal overreach continued.
He's since said that lawmakers in state capitals should decide whether to legalize gay marriage or marijuana. In 2010, he toyed with the idea of pulling Texas out of Medicaid, the state-federal program that provides health care for low-income people. Perry gave up on the idea when the state's comptroller said it would bankrupt the state.
Perry's faith in the wisdom of local lawmakers and states' rights has led him into strident fights with the Environmental Protection Agency.
In June, Perry signed a largely symbolic bill that allows Texas companies to continue producing incandescent light bulbs banned by the EPA, as long as they are sold within the state. Texas is the only state that has refused to put in place the EPA's new rules regulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.
Shawn Steel, a member of the Republican National Committee, met with Perry when he visited to California in late June. Steel said Perry sounds a lot like another big-state governor who was able to rely on charisma to win voters over to his conservative ideals. That was California's Ronald Reagan.
"Reagan said a lot of controversial things, far more than Rick Perry," Steel said. "It's how he explained them and addressed them with that disarming smile of his and a very clever quip. Can Rick do that? That's the question."
Associated Press writer Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)