WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — Gov. Rick Perry roused his fellow Texas Republicans Thursday with the full-throated conservatism he dished out on the presidential campaign trail, and they responded with fist-pumping, thunderous applause.
“Fight, Rick, Fight!” one delegate shouted from the crowd.
“Trust me brother. We ain’t giving up,” Perry responded.
It was evidence that Texas' longest-serving governor, despite his unsuccesful campaign for the White House and frayed support in some GOP quarters, hasn’t lost his touch on the stump or his enthusiasm for electoral politics.
Perry is a seasoned campaign veteran who entered the presidential contest last year with a perfect record stretching back to his first state House race in 1984. But he dumfounded Democrats, Republicans and even many of his own friends after blowing his formidable lead in the presidential polls with a series of self-inflicted gaffes and rookie mistakes. Perry withdrew from the race on Jan. 19, two days before the South Carolina primary.
But the governor is pressing forward with a likely bid for re-election in two years and is keeping his options open for 2016. In the meantime, he said he would do anything GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney asks him to do in the battle for the White House. He said the stakes are too high.
“Ask yourself what would four more years of this guy look like. What we’ve seen on steroids?” Perry said of President Obama. “We must stop this man in his tracks now.”
Perry railed against federal encroachment on state turf, noting that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had filed two dozen lawsuits against the federal government in recent years, opposing government funding for Planned Parenthood, expanded EPA regulations and Democratic health care policies.
“It seems like all we do is sue the federal government right now,” Perry said.
The remarks came a few hours before Romney’s acceptance speech was to be delivered in Tampa, and Perry laughingly admitted that not long ago he had envisioned himself being up on the convention stage instead of the former governor of Massachusetts.
“If you want to make God smile, tell him your plans,” Perry said. “Well, my plan was to be speaking tonight.”
Later, in an interview with Texas reporters, Perry said he doesn’t get “tied up around the axle of ‘Gee, I didn’t win.'”
Perry, chairman of the Texas delegation, congratulated the group for pushing back against proposed rules — pushed by the Romney campaign and convention managers — designed to give presidential candidates more control over the delegate selection process.
It was a seen as a power grab by most of the Texas delegates and by U.S. Rep. Ron Paul’s supporters. Under a compromise, the most onerous provisions were taken out, delegates said.
The governor also told the Texas delegates that chances had never been better for passage in the Legislature next year of a “school choice” bill, which critics call vouchers. Perry said it was too early to describe what might be in the bill, but generally such legislation is designed to allow children in low-performing schools use state money to attend private school.
Though Republicans ate up his speech Thursday, there is trouble in his coalition. After his failed presidential bid, Perry lobbied hard for Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the U.S. Senate race, and he frequently attacked supporters of Ted Cruz as outsiders who didn’t understand Texas. Cruz's homegrown Tea Party backers, who revere the former solicitor general and see themselves as part of a national movement to get more candidates like him to Washington, were ecstatic when he won his primary.
But they haven't forgotten what side Perry was on.
“It hurt him really, really bad,” said Katrina Pierson, a North Texas Tea Party activist who campaigned for Cruz. “If they didn’t like [Perry], before they at least respected him. He lost respect at that point.”
Pierson and JoAnn Fleming, who chairs the advisory committee of the Texas Legislature’s Tea Party Caucus, both said Perry could help himself with wary Tea Party activists if he strongly promotes — and gains passage of — some of their key initiatives in the Legislature when it reconvenes in January. But he has a long way to go.
They were already upset with Perry over supporting in-state tuition for certain young illegal immigrants and say he didn’t do enough to get legislation — opposed by big business interests — cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities that critics say provide safe harbor to those here illegally.
Tea Party groups also oppose Perry’s embrace of using economic development funds to give tax dollars to private companies like Apple and Countrywide Financial, and are calling for an end to those programs.
“Gov. Perry is long on the talk and short on the walk,” Fleming said.
While Perry is raising money for his state campaign account and telling people he plans to run again, he said he would wait until the session is over next summer before making it official. Perry said the voters can assess whether he should stay or go.
“Generally the primary voters and the Republican Party will make that decision. When and if I make the decision to run for re-election, I’m sure that decisions will be made by them on the record,” he said. “And I’m pretty comfortable with my record. We are the envy of the other 49 states.”