Rick Perry is governor of a state with a multibillion-dollar hole in the budget that's getting bigger. The EPA wants to take away the state's power to police the quality of its air. He's the butt of jokes for spending tens of thousands of tax dollars to rent a swanky house.
For anyone else, that's the resume of a candidate who needs to play defense. Not so for Perry, whose confident campaign message in seeking a historic third four-year term as governor is essentially the same as the rallying cry of the Texas revolutionaries who fought off Mexican troops in 1835: Come and take it.
With his Marlboro Man looks and easy comfort in cowboy gear — a style that plays well in the television ads that highlight campaigns in an immense state of 24 million people — Perry has so far used his place as the state's top Texan to brush off the bad news. The sober message from the campaign of Democratic challenger Bill White about the governor's failings isn't yet enough to knock Perry from his perch as the November favorite.
"More than any other state, we have a fairly strong definition of the stereotypical Texan — wearing the boots, emphasizing the autonomy of the state," said political science professor Jerry Polinard. "He fits the image I think that Texans perceive Texas to be about. People react to it. ... I think most Texans enjoy that sense of exceptionalism."
Challenged by the EPA, Perry defiantly claimed the agency's actions are a power grab by President Barack Obama and revealed he's writing a book called "FED UP" to champion the cause of states' rights. He promises budget cuts will solve the state's financial troubles and will help "keep taxes low, attract businesses and create jobs as we continue to lead the way out of the national economic downturn."
When confronted about the $10,000-per-month price tag of his rental mansion in the hills of west Austin, the politician who has never lost an election replied: "If that's the best cut anybody's got of leadership in the state of Texas, then bring it on."
"It's easy to criticize, but people want someone who will lead," said Perry's campaign spokesman, Mark Miner.
The string of tough stories to hit Perry recently plays into the straightforward campaign run by White, the analytical former mayor of Houston who has the money to compete with Perry and is the Democrats' best hope in years to win a statewide office. Citing state audits, statistics and detailed research, he is methodically and soberly trying to tie Perry to the state's woes.
He'll continue to have an easy target throughout the campaign, as Perry faces a serious challenge in working with lawmakers to balance a state budget that is potentially short by as much as $18 billion. On Friday, Perry and other Republican leaders asked state agencies to come forward with proposals to cut their spending by 10 percent.
"Texans understand, and they're understanding more every day, that Perry tries to take credit for all that's been good in Texas for a hundred years but accepts no responsibility for those aspects of state government under his control," White said.
Perry, who declined to comment himself for this story, counters such blasts with his only-in-Texas charm.
He eschewed installing metal detectors at the Texas Capitol because he said they would create a logjam for visitors. He was outvoted on the issue by fellow Republican leaders, but Perry — and anyone else with a concealed-carry gun license — can bypass the metal detector. He sometimes carries a .380-caliber pistol and even shot a coyote during a jog, inspiring Sturm, Ruger & Co. Inc. to issue a special edition handgun in his honor.
"He does more image and I do more reality," said White, an attorney and former energy executive whose style couldn't be more different. "Texans are tiring of the theater of his political career and are more interested in somebody who can bring people together and get things done."
Nathan Daschle, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, said White has a shot at beating Perry by continuing to point out flaws in Perry's record and cast him as an embodiment of the "radicalization of the GOP."
"There's not an overwhelming mandate for Rick Perry," Daschle said. "Rick Perry speaks for a portion of that state. He doesn't speak for the middle of the state. That middle, that is wide open."
While he might be vulnerable in that middle, Perry's Republican base seems satisfied and isn't inclined to cross over to vote for a Democrat, Polinard said. The political science professor at University of Texas-Pan American added that the growing Democratic voting bloc in Texas, fueled by young voters and Latinos who turned out for Obama in 2008, isn't as likely to show up en masse in a non-presidential election year.
"He's confident because he's running against a Democrat," Polinard said. "Bill White is still facing a very steep uphill climb."
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