- Texas Gov. Rick Perry's national profile has been elevated in abortion law debate
- Perry's presidential aspirations flamed out spectacularly in 2012
- Perry confidant says Perry would have to start earlier in 2016 than last time around
- Perry touts Texas' economic success; critics point to low education results, high poverty levels
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has found himself squarely in the middle of the national political conversation as he clashes with Democrats over a restrictive anti-abortion bill that has drawn thousands of protesters to Austin.
The high-profile showdown -- Perry this week called a second special legislative session to revive the abortion bill after Democrats blocked it with a filibuster engineered by state Sen. Wendy Davis -- has re-focused attention on his national ambitions and raised the prospect that he might again run for president, even after his 2012 campaign flamed out in spectacular fashion.
"How he handles this moment could affect his hopes as a 2016 contender — and his reputation as a leading figure of the Republican far right — as much as the inglorious 'oops moment' from his ill-fated 2012 run," veteran Perry chronicler Jay Root wrote in The Texas Tribune on Tuesday.
Will Perry run for president in 2016? He first has to figure out if he wants to run for a historic fourth full term in the Texas governor's mansion, a decision he is expected to make public next Monday in San Antonio.
Perry confidantes have been telegraphing for weeks that he is unlikely to make another gubernatorial bid, though they caution that he feels invigorated by the abortion fight and could change his mind at the last minute.
But his advisers also say that regardless of what he decides next Monday, a presidential bid is still within the realm of possibility.
"I do think that what's going on here in Texas shows that Perry has courage and is a principled leader, and ultimately this is a good fight for him," said Republican strategist Rob Johnson, a longtime Perry loyalist.
The second coming of Rick Perry could be laughed off as a fool's errand.
Any casual observer of the 2012 race knows that Perry embarrassed himself on a Michigan debate stage by forgetting the name of a cabinet agency he wanted to eliminate and punctuating the mistake with the "oops" heard 'round the world.
It was the final straw for GOP voters after a string of disqualifying gaffes that Perry staffers later said were brought on, in part, by prescription drugs he was taking to help mend a painful back surgery.
Democrats salivated at the prospect of running against Perry in a general election, figuring he could be easily tarred as an outside-the-mainstream social conservative too extreme for women and swing voters.
Republicans involved in the presidential process, however, say there is very much political space for Perry in if he chooses to seek the GOP nomination in 2016 -- even in a crowded field of candidates that seems certain to include a number of fresh faces and outspoken conservative darlings.
"I think he can do it," said Bob Haus, who directed Perry's Iowa campaign in 2012. "He learned a lot of last time and would have to start much earlier than he did in 2012. Starting earlier would give him a lot more time to debunk any critics and win people over again. He still has an incredible success story in terms of luring business to Texas and economic growth. He still has got this great story to tell."
Haus touched on a common theme raised by a variety of GOP activists and key players in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa and South Carolina: Despite his flaws, Perry's resume includes a laundry list of conservative accomplishments that dwarf those of his potential Republican opponents, especially those in the do-little United States Senate.
When Perry returned to Texas full-time in January of 2012, he avoided national interviews but continued to focus on the legislative and economic agenda that had endeared him to Republicans in the first place.
On the economic front, financial publications routinely rank Texas, with its low tax rates, as one of the top states in which to do business. Between March 2012 and March 2013, net job growth was higher in Texas than in any of the 10 largest states, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
On hot-button social issues like the abortion debate, Perry has continued to step into the fray from the right. Earlier this summer, after tighter gun control laws were passed in Connecticut and New York, Perry tried lure firearm manufacturers to his state.
Perry's nuanced positions on immigration reform -- he opposes a border fence, wants more "boots on the ground" along the border, and supports a "thoughtful" path to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- hurt him among GOP primary voters in 2012. But Republicans ended up losing Hispanics badly by nominating a candidate, Mitt Romney, who staked out harder line immigration positions.
"What Perry said about immigration, a lot of that stuff is in the immigration bill, and to have (Democratic Sen.) Charlie Schumer adopt them is nothing short of spectacular," said Haus. "He was very right and very correct on the issues."
The downside to the Texas story -- low high school graduation rates, poor access to health care, high poverty levels -- is rarely mentioned by Republican primary voters.
"There would be a lot of interest in Perry if he runs because he has kept himself out there since that last run," said Lin Bennett, the first vice chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "They are seeing what he can do. The abortion stuff, his state is doing well in job creation, and he was fighting to get the gun manufacturers to go to Texas. He is keeping himself out there and people have noticed."
Perry has kept himself out there in other ways. Last month, he placed a call to Katon Dawson, the former chairman of his South Carolina presidential campaign.
Dawson declined to characterize the nature of their phone conversation.
"We're friends," he explained as he chewed on a pork chop at the Lizard's Thicket, a lunch spot frequented by Columbia politicos. "You don't spent that much time together without learning to love or hate someone. I guess I'm on the like list."
Of course, ambitious governors don't call their well-connected friends in early primary states to talk SEC football. The Texas abortion showdown has confirmed that Perry relishes national attention, especially on an issue he cares about deeply.
But it's one thing to give provocative speeches at a Right To Life convention and push a bill through a Republican-dominated state house. Mounting a protracted national political campaign in today's hothouse media environment is an entirely different, and intimidating, enterprise.
"As much as Republicans hate to admit this, it's the national narrative by the political press corps and opinion leaders that's going to be the most difficult bridge to cross," argued one of Perry's 2012 campaign aides. "He has to do some serious rehabilitation. It's much easier to argue he doesn't have a shot."
Those in Perry's small orbit of advisers acknowledge the challenges of a second presidential bid but say that entering the race earlier than last time --- when he jumped in with just four months until the Iowa caucuses -- would give him time to polish his damaged reputation.
"He is real job creator and he has bona fide social credentials," said one Perry confidante. "If he can start strong and stay steady, people will see the real Rick Perry that we all know in Texas. People are looking for leadership and they have short memories. Tiger Woods went out did a bunch of bad stuff, half the country was mad at him, and then he won a golf tournament and we all love him."
The all-consuming burdens of a presidential campaign would be made considerably easier if Perry declines to seek another term as governor, current and former advisers said. In 2011, Perry was kept off the trail for a crucial stretch as he dealt with an outbreak of wildfires back home.
"The mechanics of a presidential run are as important as the person," Dawson said. "The hard work, the raising of money, the ballot access, the CFO, the COO, the political organization. It is like forming a major corporation in six months, and if you haven't done it before it gets overwhelming."
With the notable exception of George W. Bush in 2000, Republicans also have a modern tradition of nominating candidates who have previously run for the office. Of those names frequently mentioned as potential 2016 candidates, only Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have run before.
Senior-level aides to other potential Republican presidential candidates mention Perry as a potentially daunting and underestimated opponent in a GOP primary, though they questioned his ability to win the nomination.
Working in his favor: An impressive administrative resume, unrivaled personal political skills, a strong rapport with evangelicals and social conservatives, and a large Texas-based fundraising network -- even though donors might be understandably skeptical if Perry comes calling about 2016.
"Rick Perry is smart guy despite what happened during that debate," said a top aide to one Republican actively laying groundwork for the next presidential race. "He has good instincts, and he connects well one-on-one. You take that and put it in early states without running for re-election, that's a formidable candidate there. If he can raise money, then opinions will change down in D.C."
A senior adviser to a different 2016 hopeful described Perry's blueprint for victory in three words: "Iowa or bust." The South Carolina primary electorate is not as evangelical-driven as it once was, libertarian-leaning New Hampshire proved to be a non-starter for Perry in 2012, and Florida could be off the table if hometown boys Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio run.
But, this person said, Perry has little reason not to give it a shot.
"Anybody who can go out and raise $50 million, and is a good retail politician, he will sell in Iowa," the strategist said. "It doesn't mean he is going to win. But this foregone conclusion that this guy has no shot in hell only helps him. To lower expectations that low is great. If he holds an event and 100 people show up and a reporter writes about it, that's a story."
Perry himself has so far shown little inclination to engage in the 2016 speculation aside from keeping the door open to a bid. He recently declined an invitation to address a gathering of social conservatives later this summer in Iowa.
The event's organizer, evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats, endorsed Santorum before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. But he said he is no longer committed to any Republican and expects Perry to join the Republican battle in 2016.
"I fully expect Governor Perry to run for president in 2016," Vander Plaats told CNN. "That is my intel. He is going to run. I do think there is space for him. There is a lot of Iowans wanting the real Rick Perry to show up. It will be a whole new ball game."