On the Campaign Trail With Gov. Rick Perry

Gov. Rick Perry, campaigning at a barbecue restaurant in Temple.
Gov. Rick Perry, campaigning at a barbecue restaurant in Temple.

The governor depicted by Democrats as a coward in statewide newspaper ads last week doesn't seem nervous.

In fact, Rick Perry looks pretty comfortable, though he says he's taking his Democratic challenger, Bill White, seriously and expects the last two months of the general election campaign to be at least as much work as his primary battle earlier this year against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Republican renegade Debra Medina.

He's traveling six days a week, combining campaign and official business — a pace that will continue through Election Day. On the last Thursday in August, the pins in the map were on Killeen, for a college groundbreaking ceremony; Temple, for some unfiltered politics at a barbecue haven; and Texarkana, for the first day of classes at a new college building, some meetings and a private fundraiser. A reporter from The Texas Tribune accompanied him as he made his way from stop to stop.

Undefeated in five statewide elections over the last 20 years, Perry has a well-oiled operation and a network of staffers, former staffers, friends and supporters built up over the years into a statewide political machine. But machines without messages don't win elections. This cycle, the theme of his campaign is pro-Texas, anti-Washington, we're-mad-as-hell-and-we're-not-gonna-take-it-anymore conservatism, which syncs up conveniently with the populist political tide that's gripped the country.

The opposition argues that it's time for change, that Perry's tenure at the statehouse has left Texas with a deficient public education system, high insurance rates, a "pay-to-play" government run by donors and a revolving door that allows too many high officials to flit profitably between the public and private sectors. They hope the negative perception of people in power that has imperiled so many Democrats can be turned against Perry.

Perry, however, believes the prevailing mood isn't necessarily anti-incumbent (of course, he would say that, since he's been in state office for more than 20 years and in his current job for 10). Rather, it's anti-the-current-state-of-things: The economy is tight and the federal government is growing and people are ticked off. He went to a number of Tea Party rallies on April 15, 2009 — including the one in Austin where he uttered his infamous non-rejection of secession — and came away confident about the coming GOP primary and about the political season in general.

"I knew it at the end of the day," he says. "Austin, Arlington, Fort Worth. I saw regular, everyday people — just working stiffs, moms, sisters, Hispanic, African-American. ... When I got home, I was like, 'This isn't going away. This is the real deal.'"

Fiscal matters shaped the primary and now the general campaign, pushing the social issues that have been Perry staples to the side. "That's not what is on the forefront of people's thought process right now," he says. "Yeah, it's still important to them. I'm not confused that there's been any degradation of that belief system. But when your pocketbook is being attacked, when you're really concerned about what the future of this country is going to be for your children or yourself, then that is immediate. That is now."

Perry is still pro-life and pro-family values and all that, but that's not what voters are talking about. A recurring line in the governor's stump speech has four points: "We have created an atmosphere in Texas where you're not going to get overtaxed, over-regulated, over-litigated and where your kids can get a good education," he says. Another: "Principle No. 1 in government: Don't spend all the money." And: "Get out of the way, government, and let the private sector do what it does best."

Perry successfully made the primary election a referendum on Washington governance instead of state governance, defeating Hutchison — painted as the embodiment of the federal government — with surprising ease. Now he's trying to paint White with the same brush: as a confederate of the Democrats in Washington, hoping to color the former Houston mayor as the enemy in the war between the state and the feds.

White likes to tell audiences that he's traveling the state, applying for a job. Perry's answer, in so many words, is that there's not a job opening. "We're all a little bit in a test-pilot mode," he says. "People know me. People know my record. I'm not an unknown. I don't have to go out there and say, 'If you elect me, here's what I'll do.' And it's really never been that way before.

"The opponent out there, he's got to go out there and say, 'Here's what I would do different.' And people aren't thinking state government. They're thinking we need to really stop spending money in Washington, D.C., and get this country back on stable financial footing."

Perry points, in particular, to four areas of contention: the conditions that went along $550 million in unemployment insurance that he rejected from the feds, the current fight between the state and the federal government over who should regulate air quality in Texas, a new law that would prevent Texas from using more than $800 million in federal education money unless it promises not to lower state spending, and the federal health care package signed into law earlier this year. "The federal government and their strings attached make it harder for the states to actually govern themselves," he says. "And it goes to the soul of the Obama administration's statist beliefs. They want to run Texas and the other 49 states."

On the trail

Perry's first stop on his trip last Thursday was for state business, set under a big tent on a patch of land in Killeen that will be the site of a new Texas A&M University campus there. It was an hour of speeches from public officials ranging from the mayor all the way up to governor, who took the opportunity to tout the strength of the state's economy, to link education to jobs and to say the new campus is "a tangible reminder of our state's commitment to education." The event had an atypically bipartisan tone, with Perry thanking former Democratic state Rep. Stan Schlueter for years of work getting the school located and built, and U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Georgetown, going out of his way to praise Democratic U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards of Waco, who used to represent the area, for his help. (Schlueter was there; Edwards wasn't.)

Later that afternoon, Perry spoke to a crowd on the first day of school in a freshly finished building at Texas A&M-Texarkana, with much the same message about the economy, education and opportunity. Then he was off to a private fundraiser. Sandwiched between the two state events was a political stump speech for a lunch crowd that had been waiting 45 minutes for the guy whose name was on the sign out front.

The friendly crowd at Clem Mikeska's Bar-B-Q in Temple (across the street from Rylander's Best Hamburgers, if you're looking for political omens) ate it up. Standing on a chair under a mounted set of Texas Longhorns, Perry steered his listeners through subject matter that wasn't a regular feature in his earlier campaigns: gubernatorial and legislative races in other parts of the U.S. "We've got good candidates all over the country," he said. Perry talked his way through New Mexico, Oregon, South Carolina and Nevada with a little detail from each. Regarding Nevada, for instance, he told the crowd he's for Brian Sandoval, who's running for governor against Rory Reid, the son of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "If you've got a little extra money, send it to Nevada," Perry said. "It's a two-fer."

That prompted a question, later on, from someone in the audience who wanted to know if the governor of Texas wants to be the next president of the United States. "No," Perry said. "I have no intention to go to Washington, D.C., except maybe to go to a museum, like the Smithsonian."

Social issues might be in the back seat, but they're still in the car: "There is still a land of opportunity, friends — it's called Texas," Perry said. "We're creating more jobs than any other state in the nation. ... Would you rather live in a state like this, or in a state where a man can marry a man?"

He talked about the full-page ads that appeared a day earlier in newspapers around the state, featuring a shadowy picture of Perry under the word "Coward." He told the crowd Texans don't like that sort of name-calling — they nodded their heads at this — and then said he hopes the Democrats keep it up, since he thinks the ads probably do more harm to White than they do to him. The Coward campaign is a product of the Back to Basics PAC, a political action committee funded almost entirely by Houston attorney Steve Mostyn, and it's based on Perry's refusal to debate White until the Democrat has released tax returns for years when he was in public service, elected or not. Perry didn't talk about debates at Mikeska's, and none of the people in the audience brought it up.

"Look, Bill White won't remove taxes from his repertoire," Perry said later, on the plane ride from Temple to Texarkana. "He won't do it. And if you think for a moment that a former personal injury trial lawyer is not going to let this guy who's putting in $5 to $6 million turn back the clock on tort reform in this state, you're dreaming. We know what will happen with him. And that is worth fighting for. ... We fought hard for 10 years to get us in this position, and I'll be darned if I'm gonna let some guy ride into here and turn back the clock on all the progress we made. And he would." (That epithet for White isn't entirely correct; the Democrat was a trial lawyer, but only has one personal injury case — handled for a friend — on his record.)

The campaigns will start ads of their own in the next few days. Both candidates are prowling the state for votes and media coverage. The gears of a modern election are engaged. Perry is in his element.

"For me it feels great out there," he says of his time on the trail. "I have big crowds. We're in the last 60-plus days of a campaign. This is about energy. This is about focus. This is about getting people fired up about doing the hard work of a campaign. If I'm not touching the buttons that fire them up, then I'm not being a good leader."

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