Will Rick Perry's Democratic Past Hurt Him at the Polls?

Perry's Democratic past isn't a huge liability, but it may cause some heartburn on the campaign trail.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry has comfortable leads against his rivals for the 2012 GOP nomination, and with front-runner status come attacks. Fellow Texan and Rep. Ron Paul fired one of the first shots across his bow, attacking Perry for being "Al Gore's Cheerleader" during the 1988 campaign. Perry, who was a Democrat until 1989 and supported Gore's 1988 run for the White House, has billed himself as a rock-ribbed conservative, and one of the most damaging labels in politics is that of a turncoat or flip-flopper. Will this attack have any bite against Perry?

Politicians have been known to evolve. Ronald Reagan came to Hollywood as a staunch Democrat, but grew into a Republican. "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me," Reagan explained. Hillary Clinton's first foray into politics was as a "Goldwater Girl" in high school, supporting Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 run for the White House before the Vietnam years turned her into a Democrat. And the South's gradual transition from a Democratic stronghold into a Republican stronghold left many politicians changing their stripes, including some current lawmakers such as Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby.

[See a slideshow of the 2012 GOP contenders.]

Perry's own political evolution mirrors that of Texas, which had been growing from Democrat to Republican until the GOP began to dominate in the late 1980s. Even before he joined the GOP in 1989, Perry pushed conservative themes as a Democrat, joining other state legislators to push for budget cuts. His endorsement of then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore in 1988 may sound bad now, but Perry can reasonably argue that the self-proclaimed "raging moderate" was the most conservative Democrat in a field which included minister Jesse Jackson, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, and former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart.

"I was under the false idea that conservative Democrats could save the Democrat Party. They couldn't," Perry told talk show host Sean Hannity, echoing Reagan's assertion that it was the party, not him, that had changed. He has said Al Gore's support for the so-called "Star Wars" missile defense system was a key reason he endorsed the Tennessee senator, although Gore actually had blasted the system shortly before the 1988 campaign began.

Unfortunately for Perry, Gore lost the 1988 race, but went on to become the Democratic standard-bearer in 2000, and now has a saintly status among liberals--while being a lead villain among conservatives--due to his work as an environmental activist. "Regardless of the fact that Al Gore was the prolife conservative Democratic candidate in 1988, that's something that a lot of folks just don't get," says Andrew Langer, president of the conservative Institute for Liberty. "They know the Al Gore of 2000, the Al Gore of An Inconvenient Truth, and the Al Gore who represents the poster child of the attacking progressive left of the modern age."

[See cartoons about the GOP 2012 primary.]

Nevertheless, it's unlikely that the issue is going to cause huge headaches for Perry. For starters, his chief rival for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, may hesitate to bring up the "flip-flop" issue lest it brings more attention to his own political evolution on issues such as gay rights and abortion. Romney, who during the 1994 Massachusetts Senate campaign said he would be a stronger advocate for gay rights than his-opponent, Ted Kennedy, was seen by many conservatives as an opportunist uncommitted to conservative principles during his run for the 2008 GOP nomination. Perry's more conservative opponents, including Paul and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, are likely to use the Democrat label while also noting the Texas governor's more moderate stances on immigration reform, to claim that he is less committed to the conservative cause than they are. Perry's answer to the question may be enough to win over skeptical voters, but explaining can be a distraction during campaigns.

"It's so easy to answer, but you have to answer it," says University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato. "You have to spend time and resources to answer it."