His personality was strong, and his record was impressive. But he simply had not conducted a national campaign before, and the mistakes that befall nearly all rookies took their toll.
But four years later, Ronald Reagan came back stronger than ever, and the rest is history.
Can Rick Perry manage the same thing? His mistakes were far more memorable – the "oops" moment in November 2011, when he couldn't remember the third cabinet agency he wanted to close; the speech in New Hampshire where he seemed confused and out of sorts; the memorable debate exchanges with Mitt Romney in which Perry came out on the short end.
Perry had entered the race late, scrambled for staff after most of the GOP's top aides had been grabbed up by opponents and, after a brief period at the top of the heap, quickly slipped from view in 2012. "The weakest field in Republican history, and they kicked my butt," he memorably said then.
So, will he run in 2016, and if he does, can he contend?
He's running. Perry is a political lifer who, until that 2012 bid, had never lost an election. He announced he would not run for an unprecedented fourth term as governor of Texas, and then announced a trip abroad. It is hard to imagine he would do these things if he did not intend to run for president.
Can he win the Republican nomination or even the White House?
That's a more complex question. The 2016 field will not be weak. Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and even Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker could all run. Moreover, Perry would have to convince voters he won't forget the third item on a three-item list or allow the medication he takes for his chronic back pain get the better of him. That could be a tall order.
But he has something no other candidate in the field would have – an impressive record as executive of one of the nation's largest states. About 30 percent of all the jobs produced in the nation during his time as governor were produced in his state. The criticisms of his record-breaking 14 years as governor basically amount to: He is not a liberal and refuses to pursue liberal policies. Those criticisms will only help him in a GOP primary season.
He is well within the Republican mainstream on Obamacare, tax and economic policy and most social issues. The legislation he just signed establishing a 20-week limit on abortions in Texas was pitch perfect in terms of what pollsters tell us Americans believe on this issue.
His immigration views got him into trouble in 2012, but he has limited his discussion recently to calls for strengthening the border and – again, in perfect pitch – resisting the notion the GOP must get behind some kind of comprehensive "solution" that grants a path to citizenship and access to social services to 11 million people who broke the law to come here.
He is in the sweet spot for conservatives on Second Amendment issues and can tell a more compelling story about the growth involved with removing regulations than can any candidate in the race. The growing "conser-tarian" movement – mainly younger voters who trend libertarian on some issues – will find much to like, although some to dislike, in Perry's agenda.
But most importantly, he will have experience. He is a tireless and effective fundraiser, he now better understands the grind and the need to manage rest and avoid mistakes, and he will have the opportunity to assemble a staff capable of winning the big battles.
He will be asking voters for a restart, a second chance, an opportunity to prove the oops moment was just that – a moment. Will he get it? Ronald Reagan did. So did George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
So don't count on Rick Perry just yet. But do not make the mistake of counting him out.
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