Introduced as the “jobs governor,” Rick Perry threw his hat into the presidential ring with an economy-focused speech at the RedState convention in South Carolina .
“It is time to get America working again,” he said. “That’s why, with the support of my family, and an unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today my candidacy for President of the United States.”
Perry played up his roots as the son of working class tenant farmers in West Texas, a biography that could help differentiate him from the ultra-wealthy Mitt Romney. He began his address in solemn and faithful fashion, asking for a moment of silence to pray for the Navy SEALS who were killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan last week.
From there he pivoted to a red-meat speech decrying President Obama’s economic record, accusing him of trying to raise taxes to build up government and appointing pro-labor members to the NLRB. According to Perry, Obama “prolonged our national misery, not alleviated it.”
“There is no taxpayer money that was not first earned by the sweat and toil of one our citizens,” he said. “That’s why we reject this president’s unbridled fixation on taking more money out of the wallets and pocketbooks of American families and employers and giving it to a central government.”
He also decried Obama’s “incoherent muddle” of foreign policy, saying that “our President has insulted our friends and he’s encouraged our enemies.” He accused Obama of “thumbing his nose” at Israel by calling for using its 1967 borders with additional land swaps as the basis for negotiations over Palestinian statehood.
Perry had spent most of the last two years denying he had any interest in a White House run, but reopened the door in May after a number of top Republican contenders announced they would not be participating in the race. Among them were fellow governors Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels. With the 2008 veterans Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee apparently passing as well, he had an even more plausible path to the nomination — one that was apparently too enticing to resist. As if that wasn’t enough, Perry caught a lucky break when Newt Gingrich’s campaign, which employed some of his top advisers, flopped out of the gate. Newt’s implosion allowed him to reclaim his old aides, including top strategist Dave Carney, who quickly went to work building the infrastructure for a late entrance into the presidential contest.
Perry enters the race with a number of strengths. As the longest serving governor of Texas, his executive experience is unmatched among Republican contenders, and the state has weathered the recession better than the nation at large thanks in part to the booming oil industry. Perry was an early adopter of the Tea Party movement, appearing at rallies well before the activist groups had established themselves within the mainstream GOP. A devout Christian who recently hosted a prayer rally in Houston to ask for divine help with America’s problems, he can make a strong play for religious conservatives. who are especially prominent in the Iowa caucuses and have thus far gravitated around Michele Bachmann.
But he does have vulnerabilities as well. While critics and proponents alike hail his instinctive ability to read his base, he’s staked out a sometimes moderate record on immigration that included supporting the first law in the nation granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. In 2007, he issued an executive order requiring young girls to receive a new HPV vaccine, but was forced to back down after Democrats and Republicans alike revolted in the state legislature to overturn the decision — an episode that was particularly damaging with social conservatives. In 2009, he openly mused about secession, remarks that could haunt him in a general election. And his devotion to the 10th Amendment can sometimes get him into trouble with the religious right — already, he’s had to backtrack in recent weeks after initially suggesting abortion and gay marriage should be decided by the states.
“Governor Perry’s economic policies are a carbon copy of the economic policies of Washington Republicans,” Ben LaBolt, the Obama campaign’s press secretary, told The Hill after the speech.
Perry’s speech undercuts the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, where the bulk of the Republican field is gathered today. The buzz surrounding his entrance could drown out gains from middle-of-the-pack candidates looking to jolt their campaign with a strong showing there. But it could also backfire if Iowans feel snubbed by the governor’s upstaging their traditions while not participating in the straw poll himself.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.