June 11AUSTIN Suddenly, Rick Perry's name is all around a presidential race he's not even in.
On talk radio and cable TV, Republicans are asking whether the Texas governor might have the right mix of fiscal experience and social conservatism to win the GOP nomination.
For those hoping to beat Barack Obama in 2012 and dissatisfied with the GOP field, what is it that Perry brings to the party?
"The party's looking for somebody who can speak passionately against President Obama and speak passionately against Washington and have credibility from their experience to be able to do that," said Matthew Dowd, who was George W. Bush's campaign strategist.
Perry has begun talking with associates and financial backers about whether he should run. Allies and advisers who met recently in Austin to discuss the governor's possible entry into the race say he's still undecided, but this week's staff defections from Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign suddenly freed up the governor's longtime political strategist just as Perry is deciding whether to get into the race.
Supporters see Perry's chief weakness as whether American voters are ready to have another Texas governor in the White House. Bush has fallen out of favor with many Republicans, particularly tea party activists who believe he spent too much.
But in an informal blueprint for a Perry candidacy under discussion by his allies, Perry has three things that would be attractive to GOP primary voters: a record as a budget cutter, support among influential talk radio figures such as Rush Limbaugh and appeal to religious conservatives key to winning the early nominating states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
Nobody has emerged as a clear front-runner. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a favorite of some traditional Republicans, but he has problems with evangelical Christians who can dominate the party process.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, not yet a declared candidate, has the support of tea party activists and social conservatives but lacks strong backing among the party's business wing. Many question whether she's credible as a candidate.
Perry has burnished his credentials on both fronts. He insisted that Texas lawmakers deal with a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall by cutting spending and avoiding new taxes, and he credits the state's relatively healthy economy to his jobs-friendly stewardship. At the same time, Perry pleased social conservatives by making abortion, states' rights and illegal immigration priority issues in this year's legislative sessions.
Each stand could serve a different purpose in a presidential campaign. Perry's ties to religious conservatives would help him in the GOP primaries, as born-again evangelicals constitute half the vote in some early states. And his record as a fiscal conservative would benefit him in a general election that looks increasingly likely to turn on the economy and jobs.
East Texas evangelist Rick Scarborough, president of Vision America, said Perry's only stumble with social conservatives was his 2007 mandate that pre-teen girls be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease, a proposal the Legislature rejected after an outcry on the right. Otherwise, Scarborough gives Perry "high marks" on issues important to religious conservatives.
"There is no perfect candidate. Even Jesus got crucified," he said.
On Aug. 6, Perry will host an eight-hour day of Christian "prayer and fasting" at Reliant Stadium in Houston. He's invited his 49 fellow governors, although nearly all who have responded say they either aren't coming or haven't decided. Still, the event will give Perry a highly visible presence a week before the Iowa straw poll, an early test of the GOP presidential field.
The Houston event is being paid for by the American Family Association, a Mississippi-based Christian organization that opposes gay rights. The group's spokesman is a former Perry speechwriter, and organizers were part of earlier efforts by Perry in Texas to encourage evangelicals to get involved in politics.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, which has been critical of the religious right, said the event underscores how Perry has increasingly cultivated evangelicals in recent years.
"When Rick Perry came into office as governor, he did it at least pretending to be a centrist," she said. "One of the first things he did is sign a hate crimes bill that included sexual orientation protection, which even his predecessor wouldn't do.
"As the Republican Party has been taken over by religious and social conservatives, Rick Perry became more of a religious and social conservative," she said.
In 2005, Perry teamed up with a group of conservative pastors to create the Texas Restoration Project, a network of religious leaders whose first task was passage of the state's gay-marriage ban. Perry promoted the proposed constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage with a ceremonial bill-signing at a Fort Worth Christian school.
Voters approved the amendment, and the following year Perry, with the support of pastors involved in the Texas Restoration Project, won re-election as governor.
Perry has subsequently spoken at "values voters" conferences, where he has touted states' rights, denounced Obama and praised author Cleon Skousen, a John Birch Society advocate touted by Fox News personality Glenn Beck.
One person Perry has invited to the Houston prayer event is John Hagee, a San Antonio televangelist with a strong following among religious conservatives. In 2008, John McCain accepted, then rejected, Hagee's endorsement after news stories that Hagee had advocated bombing Iran and described the Catholic church as "the whore of Babylon."
"Gov. Perry doesn't really have to do much to shore up his credentials with social conservatives," said Michael Lindsay, a Rice University professor who specializes in issues of politics and religion. "That's part of the community that support him and have been loyal."
But Lindsey said that for evangelical voters, Perry's "own faith journey is not as publicly known as George W. Bush's." The former president openly discussed his association with Billy Graham and how religion played a part in his decision to quit drinking.
"This event might be an occasion for folks to hear him and get to know more about him," Lindsey said.
Dowd said Perry shares with GOP stars Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Palin an ability to speak to "the emotional passion of people in the Republican Party right now," but also has an economic record in office that gives him "credibility that those two candidates don't have."
AT A GLANCE: THE GOP FIELD
Current major Republican presidential candidates, and where they fall short with parts of the GOP base:
The U.S. House member from Minnesota is a tea party favorite and is solid with social conservatives, but establishment Republicans fear she's a loose cannon.
The former pizza executive is getting rave reviews from tea party followers, but his stances on social issues aren't well-known.
Tea party activists see him as part of the Washington establishment and are angry at his comments about U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare. Social conservatives are dismayed by the fact that he's on his third marriage.
The former Utah governor's support of civil unions for gay couples could hurt him with social conservatives, and tea party leaders are suspicious of his service in President Barack Obama's administration.
Although the tea party loves him, business interests disdain the Texas congressman's libertarian stances on financial matters.
Tea party supporters might question his stewardship of Minnesota now that the state faces a budget shortfall after his term as governor.
Social conservatives are distrustful of his late conversion to a stance against abortion, and tea party supporters dislike the comprehensive health care law he signed as Massachusetts governor.
He's counting on strong social conservative support for his run, but the former Pennsylvania senator lacks a broader base.
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