An Interview With Rick Perry's Chief Consultant

Gov. Rick Perry after his primary victory on March 2, 2010.
Gov. Rick Perry after his primary victory on March 2, 2010.

Dave Carney, the general consultant to Gov. Rick Perry's re-election campaign — and to his campaigns in 1998, 2002, and 2006 — lives in New Hampshire and commutes and telecommutes to the Texas governor's headquarters (and to other political contests around the country). Perry is his biggest client, and he's been on board since Perry ran for lieutenant governor in 1998. Then agriculture commissioner, Perry had been a client of Karl Rove, before Rove was swept to the national stage in the presidential run of George W. Bush. Carney started his political career working for Judd Gregg — now a U.S. senator — in New Hampshire in 1978. That led, circuitously, to working for John Sununu (former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff) and then to President George H.W. Bush and then, after some years, to Texas and Perry. He sat for an interview with the Tribune at the Hyatt Regency in Dallas during the GOP's state convention last weekend.

Many believe Perry is positioning himself for a presidential run, despite his repeated denials and disdain for Washington. But Carney says Perry isn't doing many of the things you'd expect a budding presidential candidate to do, like travel to early primary states and raise money for congressional candidates in strategic areas nationwide.

If Perry's denying any presidential aspirations, why are political people talking about him as a presidential aspirant? Because he's got an unusual ability to communicate with voters. 

His campaign is remarkably consistent in its message, even on emerging issues that it hasn't had time to debate internally. That's because Perry is predictable, so the people around him don't have to guess where he'll come down.

During the 2006 campaign, Perry's camp let a group of political science professors watch what they were doing, to test what worked and what didn't and examine the accepted norms of what's done and not done in a campaign. They wanted to know what their campaign money bought. A week of television advertising in sufficient frequency to move voters costs $1.5 million a week, give or take. Dropping one piece of campaign literature into 4 million mailboxes can easily cost $2 million. The results — which cast doubt on the effectiveness of many common methods and campaign vendors — have produced a 2010 operation that's strange to traditionalists. Perry's campaign didn't send mailers to voters (but did to potential donors). They made lawn signs available to people on their website but didn't give them away, as is customary; supporters wanting signs have to pay $7.99, and those who want a 2-by-4 banner are charged $34.99. They did no newspaper advertising. They didn't open regional offices all over the state. They didn't run phone banks. And they didn't go to editorial boards seeking support from the top folks at the state's newspapers. 

He says Bill White is too constrained, trying to not be a Democrat in a race where a contrast might work to his advantage. If you can't address a state problem with a program because the solution would cause a tax increase — an increase you don't think you can safely recommend — you're stuck in "the Kabuki dance on taxes" and you can't campaign from the heart. (Of course, the Republicans would love to campaign in Texas against a Democrat who's proposing a tax increase, but that's another conversation.) Perry, by Carney's reckoning, can campaign from the heart, and that's working so far with voters. 

Perry's opponents like to call him a "39 Percent Governor"; that's the margin that won him the last election. But Carney says it's a canard. 

If Perry doesn't want to be president, it's not because he has no interest in issues bigger than the state. Carney says his passion — this would be the message of the campaign, folks, if you haven't been watching since the governor's first appearance at a Tea Party rally more than a year ago — is making Texas and other states more powerful relative to the federal government. 

And he circled back to the question about the presidency. Other candidates have been making regular visits to Texas, tapping Perry for help, for appearances — and, probably, to take his measure as a potential rival for a White House run. Carney's read is that his boss wants to do what he wants to do from outside Washington, D.C. 

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