Texas Gov. Rick Perry preached to more than 30,000 fundamentalist Christians… (Brandon Thibodeaux, Getty…)
Reporting from Des Moines — In a bid to steal attention from his Republican rivals, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to affirm his intention to run for president this weekend, just hours before a major straw vote test in Iowa.
Perry will probably use a previously scheduled speech Saturday in South Carolina, home of the first Southern primary, to signal his plan to enter the race. He will follow that by flying immediately to New Hampshire, the leadoff primary state, for a house party that evening.
At the same time, thousands of party activists will be awaiting the results of an Iowa straw poll with the potential to sort out the Republican field. Perry's name is not on the ballot but a well-financed write-in effort, which he has not officially sanctioned, is being waged on his behalf.
Perry, whose plans were first reported by the New Hampshire Union Leader's website and Politico, could fill a void in the field, which has neither a strong Southern contender nor a consensus conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, the early favorite.
"Stay tuned," said the governor's spokesman, Mark Miner, who did not deny reports the governor will signal his intentions Saturday. Perry is not a candidate "at this time" but "continues to consider a potential run for the White House," Miner said in an email response.
His candidacy would also scramble an unsettled campaign for the GOP nomination, a prize that has shot up in value as a sputtering recovery clouds President Obama's reelection prospects. Republican strategists regard Perry as a potentially serious threat to Romney, a shaky front-runner in the eyes of some GOP politicians.
Perry "would have at least a 50-50 shot at beating him," said Curt Anderson, a GOP consultant who worked for Romney previously but is not involved in his campaign.
The Texan has strong ties to social conservatives and the party establishment, through his work as head of the Republican Governors Assn. He preached to more than 30,000 fundamentalist Christians over the weekend at a Houston stadium rally that showcased his religious beliefs.
He would be the only sitting governor in the GOP race, and could count on a lucrative fundraising base in his home state to get his campaign going.
Among the questions facing his candidacy, including his ability to perform on the national stage, will be the degree to which financial backers of former President George W. Bush, whose relations with Perry are cool, at best, will open their wallets to him.
The 11-year incumbent is considered a pugnacious — and often underestimated — campaigner. He became a "tea party" favorite in his most recent reelection, in 2010, when he easily turned back Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary, in effect ending the career of one of the state's longest-serving and most respected figures.
A top selling point for his candidacy is likely to be job growth in Texas, which has outstripped that of other states in recent years, in part because high oil prices benefited companies that service the petroleum industry.
Reggie Bashur, an Austin, Texas, lobbyist who is close to Perry's team, calls the governor a "focused and determined" politician who "understands message" and "is great one-on-one. He likes and respects people."
The 61-year-old governor has never run a national campaign before, but he will have a stable of experienced advisors at his side. Among them is longtime strategist David Carney, a White House political director under President George H.W. Bush and a consultant to the presidential campaign of 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole. Carney was briefly involved in Newt Gingrich's 2012 campaign, but he resigned along with other top aides, several of whom are now expected to join Perry.
The governor's appearance this weekend at a Charleston, S.C., conference organized by conservative blogger Erick Erickson will include meetings with party activists. About 60 county Republican chairmen and state party executive committee members have been invited to a private session with Perry.
From there, he will hop to New Hampshire for a house party at the home of Pamela Tucker, deputy speaker of the New Hampshire House. She offered to host Perry during a visit that she and other New Hampshire Republicans made to Austin last week.
"Happily this morning I found out that he accepted," said Tucker, who said her head was "spinning" just hours after getting the news.
Tucker said Perry would be a formidable addition to the field and that she had strongly encouraged him to get into the race: "His record on jobs is so commendable. The fact that Texas has created more jobs than the other 49 states combined is certainly something that we as a nation have to look at to see how we can turn our nation into that."
Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Los Angeles contributed to this report.