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Analysis: Perry, Gaining Speed, Tripped by a Judge

Former Gov. Rick Perry has been fighting the clock since a Travis County grand jury indicted him last summer. With Tuesday's ruling that the indictments should proceed, he has become a candidate with a deadline.

A defiant Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to supporters after his booking at the Travis County Courthouse on August 19, 2014.

Everything’s been coming up roses for Rick Perry, but beneath every rose is a pile of manure.

His attempt to snuff out a pesky indictment — what his lawyers call a politically motivated attack from prosecutors in a persistently Democratic county — has been denied. A trial judge in Austin said Tuesday that the case should proceed. And that ruling lands just as the former governor began to gain some traction for his bid for the Republican nomination for the 2016 presidential race. 

Just as he is gaining some credibility, he is running out of time.

The former governor’s lawyers have already announced their intent to appeal the decision to another court. And if they lose again, there is another court past that one that could hear the case.

Perry could still prevail, but this will take time. He doesn’t have much. Look at Tom DeLay: The former U.S. majority leader was finally acquitted on charges he laundered campaign money in the 2002 elections. He’s exonerated, free and unencumbered — on the legal matters. But DeLay’s legal troubles took more than 10 years to unwind. He prevailed, if you want to call it that, but only after he had lost his leadership post, his seat in Congress and the chance to enjoy the Republican majority he helped maintain in those 2002 contests.

Perry might be free of his charges at some point, but he’s much better off if the criminal matters in Travis County end sooner rather than later. He is accused of abusing his office in 2013 when he threatened to veto state funding for a local Democratic prosecutor’s office unless she agreed to step down.

That prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested and convicted of drunken driving. The videos of her arrest made for an ugly internet sensation, and she said she would serve out her term and not seek another. Perry, still governor, demanded her resignation and said he would veto funding for her office’s public integrity unit — that’s the division that prosecutes crimes involving state officials — if she refused.

She refused. He vetoed. A special prosecutor was appointed by a visiting judge, the better to take this out of the hands of the local criminal justice folks.

If Perry can’t erase the charges, he’ll have to stand trial.

While his lawyers saw away at that set of problems, Perry is getting ready for a run for president. It would be bigger news at this point if he drops out than if he decides, officially, to run.

But the calendar is collapsing around him. The Iowa straw polls — an unofficial but meaningful test of strength in the Republican primaries — will take place in August. Similar trial heats fill out the last months of the year. The Iowa caucuses are tentatively set for early January, and the New Hampshire primary is set for a week later. That’s just under a year from now.

Perry has shed the security detail that followed him around during his 14 years as governor and for now is just another citizen, albeit one who draws a crowd whenever he appears in public. He got good reviews last week at the Iowa GOP summit, which drew a number of the contenders for the party’s 2016 nomination. Another big event for the wannabes is set for next month, at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC event in Maryland.

It’s still early, but the Republicans have a herd of hopeful candidates who would like to be the next president. Donors and activists have some time to sort the best and the worst before the voters do the hard work and choose a nominee from among the handful of serious candidates who survive the next year of campaigning.

The year ahead would be a tough one for Perry under the best of circumstances. He, like the other contenders, has to gain enough financial support to keep running, develop a network of people who will get them into the primaries and beyond, and find a political groove that could succeed in the primaries without spoiling chances in a general election.

That is as difficult as it gets in politics. Every small advantage or disadvantage is important.

So are the big ones — like having a contestant who is running with the extra weight of a criminal indictment. Even people who want Perry to win don’t think it’s possible if he is operating under the cloud of a criminal indictment. If the Republicans can’t make mincemeat out of him for that, the Democrats surely will.

Maybe it’s a serious indictment and a jury will someday convene and find the governor broke the law. Maybe Perry’s lawyers are right when they say the indictment is unfounded and ridiculous.

Eventually we will all know the answer, but the question itself will ruin Perry’s candidacy if he can’t get rid of it or beat it. If his lawyers want their client to have a shot at the presidency, they’d better hurry.

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Politics Rick Perry