Back in Texas, Rick Perry Has Relationships to Repair

Gov. Rick Perry waits to go on stage at the 7 Flags Events Center in Clive, Iowa, on Jan. 3, 2012. Perry placed fifth in the Iowa caucuses.
Gov. Rick Perry waits to go on stage at the 7 Flags Events Center in Clive, Iowa, on Jan. 3, 2012. Perry placed fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

When Gov. Rick Perry suspended his presidential bid, he said it was because there was no “viable path forward.” But is there a viable path back?

In his five-month run for the White House, he called Turkey’s leaders “Islamic terrorists,” blasted Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s fiscal strategy as “treasonous,” and slammed gays serving openly in the military, moves that made some moderate Republicans choke on their lunch.

He offended Tea Partiers and some of his social conservative fans by saying opponents of in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants were heartless.

And he alienated big business Republicans by going after so-called “vulture capitalists,” prompting Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, to compare Perry to Fidel Castro.

Publicly, Perry’s supporters say no bridges have been irreparably burned. Almost as soon as he pulled out of the race, his advisers were spinning forward, suggesting Perry could run for re-election in Texas in 2014, or take another stab at the presidency in four years.

“The governor comes back in a strong position,” Ray Sullivan, his spokesman, said in an interview at Perry’s campaign headquarters on Friday, just hours after returning from South Carolina. “To the extent that any issues need to be handled on the political side here in Texas — and I’m not sure there will be any — I’m confident that will be done quickly and effectively.”

But privately, some of Perry’s longstanding allies expressed doubts that the slate can be wiped perfectly clean — at least without some fence-mending.

“There are some people who have their noses out of joint, but the real question is, which man returns?” said Bill Miller, a political consultant based in Austin. “If it’s the presidential candidate making mistakes and offending people, he’s going to have trouble. If it’s the guy who embodies the old Rick Perry, with his ‘I love ya, let’s get Texas going again’ attitude, it’s an easy landing.”

Friends and colleagues of the governor say the Rick Perry now home in Texas is a humbled man, one who spent Friday, the day after withdrawing from the race, making phone calls to thank supporters and smooth over rough edges — a bitter pill for someone so unfamiliar with losing. They say he is relieved to be done after a fifth-place finish in first-test Iowa, a horrible finish in New Hampshire and an uphill battle in South Carolina, and is looking forward to getting back to work in the governor’s office.

“There have been a lot of hard feelings, not just that the campaign didn’t go well, but how it didn’t go well,” said one Perry adviser who was not authorized to speak on the record and asked not to be named. “Perry has taken some steps to acknowledge how bad things were. The outreach has been humble and gracious, in the financial community and in the campaign community. He’s telling people he learned a lot.”

But Texans learned something too — how their usually unflappable governor performs under national pressure.

They winced at the gaffes and unforced errors: When Perry misstated the voting age and the number of justices on the Supreme Court. When he said Texas teaches creationism in public schools. When he forgot the third agency he wanted to shutter during a presidential debate, prompting the “oops” heard around the cable news world.

And they cringed as Perry’s campaign rhetoric and candidate attacks grew more desperate.

There was the December “Strong” ad where Perry states, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military” — which his advisers quietly called a blatant grasp at Christian conservatives.

When he was under fire in a Republican debate, his statement that those who opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants did not have “a heart” rankled the same anti-immigration voters he was trying to court. And Perry’s allegation, with his back against the wall in South Carolina, that firms like the financial services company his opponent Mitt Romney founded were “vulture capitalists” outraged some Republican business leaders, in addition to the Republican pundit class.

JoAnn Fleming, chairwoman of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus Advisory Committee, said Perry has some explaining to do back in Texas. She called his “vulture capitalism” comments the kind of attack a liberal would make, and said that although Perry defended Texas’ in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants on the campaign trail, she and other Tea Party activists will be calling on him to repeal it in the next legislative session.

News reports that Perry had begun drawing down his pension to supplement his gubernatorial salary did not sit well with small-government conservatives either, she said.

“He has some cleaning up of his own doorstep he needs to do,” Fleming said.

Gene Austin, the Republican-leaning chief executive of Convio, an internet marketing and business management software company based in Austin, said Perry’s “troublesome campaign” — and how “unprepared” he was for the national stage — have even broader implications. He worries that the Texas governor’s comments on the campaign trail could hinder, at least in the short term, the intersection of big business and workforce development in Texas.

“I think the damage is temporary; time heals all wounds,” Austin said. “He’s a smart person, no doubt about it. But ‘vulture capitalism’ absolutely alienated the business community.”

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. Bill Hammond, president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, said in any hard-fought campaign, bombs get dropped in the heat of battle. “But you compare that against a 10-year record of being one of the best governors for creating jobs,” he said, “and we come down on the side of Rick Perry.”

And state Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican and Tea Party favorite, said Perry does not have to ask for any forgiveness. “He stepped onto the big stage, he stumbled early without question in the debates. But I thought he left the race putting party and cause above his own desires,” Patrick said. “He comes back determined to show that this presidential run has not impacted his authority or his power or his passion to lead Texas.”

Political insiders say presidential cycles are vicious, and that conservative voters know that. They say the people in Iowa, South Carolina, or back home in Texas who took offense to Perry’s campaign attacks were “finger in the wind” voters who are probably still mad. Back home, they say, it all comes out in the wash.

“Texas is a sympathetic audience for him,” said Miller, the political consultant. “He has drawn on supporters here for many years — they know what he’s like, and know he gets more aggressive in campaigns than he does otherwise.”

Republican insiders in Texas say the bulk of the rebuilding Perry needs to do is with his longtime state-based staff, some of whom felt they got big-footed by national consultants in a rough-and-tumble campaign. Whether Perry simply finishes out his term as governor, runs for re-election, or makes another national run — as his advisers have suggested he could do — he will need them in his corner.

“There are a lot of bruised ribs,” said the Perry adviser. “After the requisite period of time, I think you’ll see all the familiar and competent faces.”

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