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Reading the Tea Leaves, Three Years Later

Three years ago, Gov. Rick Perry got his first real look at the Tea Party movement, and now he says he wants to "get it into the groundwater."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses a crowd estimated at 1,000 at a tax day "tea party" April 15 at City Hall to protest federal government stimulus programs

It was only three years ago when the political lines converged. On Tax Day at Austin City Hall, Gov. Rick Perry spoke to a crowd of noisy, rowdy Texans in the sort of assembly that quickly became common as the Tea Party wave swept Texas and the country.

That crested as Perry was crystallizing his own views on Texas and Washington and fiscal conservatism. It seeded the anti-Washington message of his 2010 race for re-election as governor, found fuller expression in his book, Fed Up! which was published days after that election, and served as the rationale behind his abortive race for president. And now the governor wants others to get in line, before the elections and before the legislative session that begins in January.

"I did three that day — Austin, Arlington and then one at a baseball park in Fort Worth, where the Cats play," Perry said on the phone this week, remembering the Tax Day rallies. "That was the day I realized how real the Tea Party was.

"I obviously had a message about Washington's overreach," he said. "Over the course of the months and years, that has refined down to a tight 10th Amendment message."

The rallies have subsided, and the ideas of the Taxed Enough Already folks have been subsumed into the mainstream Republican Party. Perry is still working it, though. On Monday, he will unveil a financial pledge and challenge candidates in Texas to sign on, agreeing to oppose new taxes and tax increases, to cut "duplicative" programs and agencies in state government, and to push budget ideas that he has been touting for years, like requiring lawmakers to spend state revenue collected for specific programs on those programs, instead of diverting the money to other uses.

It's like the pledges that made the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist famous, but with more promises and with the clout of a governor behind it. Norquist has state and federal lawmakers all over the country quaking with fear of what might happen if they pass a tax bill. Whatever you might think of that, it's an interesting exercise in stimulus and response.

Imagine how it might work for someone with the power of public office. Perry can support or oppose Republicans in elections — a strong card to play with just six weeks left before the primaries. After the general election, lawmakers will walk into a legislative session where the guy with the pledges has veto power over their bills.

"I think we're at a unique time that we can reset the budgeting game in Texas," Perry said. "We could have well over half the House with one term or less, and maybe five new senators who are considerably more conservative. I've looked at the landscape. I'm going to be the senior statesman, so to speak. This is the time."

Perry said many of the candidates running for office now, and those who were elected in the Republican landslide in 2010, were either influenced, inspired or recruited by the Tea Party. What if they pledged to toe the line as they begin their terms, and for years remain bound to the promises they make now?

"I wanted people to be talking about it between now and the 29th of May, in time for the candidates to get their arms around it," Perry said.

"I wanted to get it into the groundwater. It isn't just the primary. I want candidates and voters thinking about this going into the next legislative session."

Perry's term runs through 2014, and he has told private groups that he plans to run for re-election. Some read that as a real possibility. Lots of handicappers thought he wouldn't run for re-election in 2010, but he did — and won handily. It's easy to believe it now because it happened then. Some think he's laying out the possibility to counter suspicions that he's a lame duck. Nobody in power wants to be disregarded after leaving office, much less before the term ends.

Perry isn't openly building a legacy. He and the crowds he met three years ago, he said, fed off each other. This could outlast him without belonging to him.

"It's an organic movement," he said. "Nobody's the head of the Tea Party."

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