Why Rick Perry's Texas Success Isn't Translating

Perry knew how to pummel opponents in Texas. Why hasn't he done so nationally?

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Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in Texas history. Supporters and opponents acknowledge that he's a gifted, disciplined campaigner with an uncanny sense of timing. But his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination has been hampered by a late start, poor debate performances, and a lack of focus. Why has one of most successful politicians in the one of the country's largest states stumbled so badly on the national stage? In making the jump into the national field, Perry has lost or squandered some of the natural advantages he has enjoyed as the king of Lone Star politics.

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Since he succeeded George W. Bush as governor of Texas in 2000, Perry has handily won re-election three times. His victories didn't come against token opposition, either. In 2002 he ran against a well-funded, self-described Democratic "Dream Team" of state-wide candidates, lead by Texas businessman Tony Sanchez. In 2010, he faced a primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a three-term Republican with endorsements from well-known Texas figures such as former President George H.W. Bush, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, and former Sen. Phil Gramm. Despite trailing by as much as 20 percent early in the race, Perry ultimately prevailed with a resounding 55 percent victory.

Texas Political observers say that Perry is skilled at using the advantages of his office to beat back challengers. Perry hasn't been in an election where he wasn't an incumbent since 1998. "For years, he's been able to a large extent control the arena to which he was playing," says Chris Bell, a Houston lawyer and former congressman who ran against Perry in 2006. "For the last two cycles, he's basically gotten to dictate the playing field. All of that goes out of the window in a national campaign." Bell noted that Perry only agreed to one debate with the other candidates in 2006, and picked a Friday as the date, when many Texans would have been watching high school football. Overall in his 10 years as governor, he has only debated his opponents face-to-face four times. He could also selectively pick newspapers for endorsement interviews. And as an incumbent, he had time to prepare for his political rivals. "Rick Perry is at his best when he can think of a campaign two or three years ahead of time," says Jason Stanford a Texas Democratic campaign consultant who ran Bell's campaign against Perry. In Hutchison's case, the Perry camp had been researching her since 2006, when she initially flirted with a run against Perry. In a strong anti-Washington year, Perry set out to define her as a D.C. politician, and she never recovered. Her advantages, including name recognition and a parade of endorsements from influential politicians, became fatal weaknesses.

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But as a late entrant in a presidential campaign, Perry is out of his element. He can no longer avoid debates, where he performs weakly. He finds himself attacked from the right, an unfamiliar position for the rock-ribbed conservative. "Down here, he's always been the most conservative in the race," says Bill Miller, an Austin political consultant and lobbyist. "He's always flanked everybody he's run against on the right." But some issues, especially immigration, play differently in Texas than they do in national Republican politics.

And Perry's late entrance in the race also baffles some Texas political observers, who note that one of Perry's biggest strengths, at least in Texas, was his sense of timing. In 1989, he saw that it was time to defect from the Democratic Party and run as a Republican against an incumbent Texas Agriculture Commissioner. In 2009, he was one of the first Republican politicians to figure out a way to capitalize on the nascent Tea Party movement. "He was appearing at these proto-Tea Party rallies," says Jim Henson, a professor at the University of Texas and director of the college's Texas Politics project. "The primary was already beginning to take shape, and they were out in front of it."