Think of it as Rick Perry's Evel Knievel moment.
When last the former Texas governor hit the throttle and hurtled into the void of a presidential race, his rapid fall to the canyon floor was a painful sight.
After months of revving his engine, on June 4 Perry is expected finally to pop the clutch and take another run at jumping that canyon.
Can he make it across this time? Maybe, maybe not.
THE CASE FOR MAYBE
Voters — especially in the states that matter — are willing to give him a second chance.
The central question of Perry's 2016 campaign will be whether he can convince voters to give him a second chance at a first impression. It’s a big ask, considering that Perry’s 2012 flame-out — punctuated by forgetting on a debate stage the third federal agency he would shut down if president — is the stuff of modern political history.
So far, though, early-state voters seem more than willing to hear him out again. They like his candor about what went wrong last time, they largely agree with him on the issues expected to factor into the primary and, while he is not the top choice of many of them at this early stage, they view him as a serious contender.
"He’s putting a lot of work into getting a second chance, and I have no doubt in my mind that people will give him another look," said Craig Robinson, former political director of the Iowa GOP. “He’s revitalized his image among Iowa Republicans, and that’s a testament to his hard work.”
He may be the best retail politician out there.
There is a broad consensus among Republican strategists and early-state voters that Perry is one of the best — if not the best — retail politician with an eye on the White House in 2016. He thrives in one-on-one settings, delivering exactly the kind of personal interaction Republicans demand in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"Based on what I've seen in Iowa over the last few months, there's no one who understands the personal hand-to-hand retail nature better than Gov. Perry," said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and unaligned consultant. "More importantly, he doesn't just understand the retail nature, he excels at it. That's just based on observations of watching him work a room. He will stay in the room until the last hand is shook and the last selfie is taken."
Perry has wasted no time capitalizing on that reputation. He is heading to Iowa this weekend for a five-day trip filled with small-town stops that will give him the opportunity to show off his retail skills.
He is more prepared than he was in 2011.
After the initial excitement died down, Perry’s shotgun entrance into the 2012 race left much to be desired. By his own admission, Perry had not done his homework on all the issues and wrongly assumed running a big state was enough experience to be commander in chief.
This time, Perry has taken a more methodical approach to the contest, spending months — if not years — boning up on policy, gathering chits in the early-voting states and building a team ready for the long haul. He is also healthier than he was in 2011, when he leapt into the race just weeks after undergoing back surgery.
“There’s no question" Perry is better prepared for 2016 than he was for 2012, said Austin Barbour, a Mississippi-based Republican strategist running a pro-Perry super PAC. “The experience he went through in 2011 and 2012 obviously opened his eyes.”
THE CASE FOR MAYBE NOT
He has struggled to break through for months.
For months polling has shown Perry in the low single digits in early-voting states and nationally. Perry's allies say it's too early to put stock in those numbers. Pollsters note the former governor is down but not out: He still has relatively high favorability ratings that could go a long way.
The polling, however, speaks to Perry’s broader struggle to stand out in a much more crowded, diverse field than the one he joined in 2011. He has worked hard to find competitive advantages — his military experience, for example — but so far they have simply kept him in the 2016 conversation, not amplified his presence. At early-state cattle calls, he has been well received but has not performed at a level that, for example, suddenly elevated Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to frontrunner status earlier this year in Iowa.
Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host in Iowa, recently pointed to a forum hosted by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition as an example of Perry's inability to distinguish himself. Deace sent some associates to the event, and they reported back their thoughts on the several candidates who spoke.
"There was a lot of excitement for Cruz, and it's just like Rick Perry's not there," Deace said. "People are just anxious for new blood."
Perry no longer has Texas to himself.
When Perry ran in 2011, Texas’ vast political establishment rallied behind him, from small-time activists to some of the state’s most generous donors. This time, Perry is vying for political clout in Texas with a host of candidates — declared or otherwise — who have roots in the state, most prominently U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
And unlike in 2012, the Texas primary could matter in 2016. Its March 1 date is the earliest allowed by party officials after the traditional first four contests and could mean the state is do-or-die for some candidates, especially those who call it home.
Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican strategist, said the challenge was inevitable given the differences between the shape of the GOP field in 2012 and what it could be in 2016.
“He won’t have nearly the unified support of the Texas financial and political infrastructure that he had last time, but I think in a field this deep and strong, there was always going to be fracturing,” Mackowiak said.
An indictment hangs over his head.
Perry remains under indictment in Travis County on abuse-of-power charges stemming for his threat to veto state funding for the public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office. There is no end in sight for the case, and the special prosecutor handling the indictment recently lamented the two sides “have exchanged hundreds of pages of briefs” without getting any closer to a resolution than they were several months ago.
Perry insists voters rarely — if ever — express concern about the indictment as he travels the country. But it has spooked some donors and raised the unflattering prospect of Perry running for president while shuttling in and out of a courtroom.
“I’ve never heard it talked about in Iowa, to be honest. When it first came out, it was national news, but it’s not as high-profile as, say, Bridgegate,” Robinson said, referring to the scandal swirling around another likely candidate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
“Still,” Robinson added, “I’d say it’s never good that you’re under indictment.”
Abby Livingston contributed to this report.