GOP Texas Gov. Rick Perry gives a closing address at a prayer rally he organized… (Erika Rich, Daily Texan )
Reporting from Ames, Iowa — Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entry into presidential politics could quickly turn the Republican race into a two-man contest as he and front-runner Mitt Romney compete for the party's big donors and establishment support.
Unlike the other candidates struggling to get above single digits in early polling, Perry, who plans to announce Saturday, appears to have the ability to unite "tea party" and establishment wings of the party.
As a politician, "he's better than Bush was at this point … and better able to connect" with voters, said Matthew Dowd, a former political advisor to George W. Bush who is close to the Perry inner circle. At the same time, Perry is less conversant with national and international issues than Bush was at the outset "thanks to his father," the former president, Dowd said.
Highly promising candidates have flamed out before, and in the modern primary era, no candidate who has joined the presidential race this late has gone on to win the nomination. But even strategists in rival camps say there is enough time for Perry, thanks to digital-age communications and the wide-open nature of the Republican contest.
In taking on Romney, the Texan will pit his people skills — and instinct for the jugular — against a more formal, buttoned-down foe who has grown as a candidate but who still comes off as awkward in casual encounters with strangers. Both men have been skewered by detractors who enjoy poking fun at their thick, perfectly coiffed hair, although the personal similarities largely end there.
Perry, 61, will be able to set up a cultural contrast that plays to his advantage, at least in the GOP primaries: the hardscrabble populist from conservative Texas vs. a scion of the establishment elite from liberal Massachusetts.
Perry's rise from Paint Creek, an isolated farming outpost on the plains of West Texas, was followed by a degree in animal science at Texas A&M, a state school with a strong military tradition, five years in the Air Force and a steady climb through state politics.
Romney, 64, was raised in privilege by a wealthy auto executive father who became Michigan's governor. He earned law and business degrees from Harvard and a fortune in venture capital, then entered politics at the top, serving one term as governor of his adopted Massachusetts.
Even their religious backgrounds are sharply at odds: Perry was raised as a Methodist and forged deep ties to evangelical Christianity, some of whose adherents remain suspicious of the Mormon faith that Romney embraces.
Romney has outpaced other candidates in early fundraising and can draw on his substantial personal wealth, while Perry is belatedly scrambling to build a national fundraising network. Money could be crucial if the race drags into late spring. The early primary schedule appears friendly to Perry, with a Southern Super Tuesday in early March, including his home state, on the heels of contests in South Carolina and Florida, where he could be favored.
The Romney campaign is already telegraphing one likely attack line against Perry — that he's a career politician, which they maintain is a detriment in a GOP now driven by outsider anger. The Texan was elected to the state Legislature more than a quarter-century ago and has never lost an election, winning statewide six times, including three times for governor.
Perry will be under intense pressure to perform well in three televised debates next month, starting with a Sept. 7 forum at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
Stuart Stevens, a top Romney strategist, said the addition of Perry to the GOP field "will make the debate seem bigger and better." Other candidates, including Romney, will benefit because "the better the competition, the better you get," Stevens said.
But Perry's Lone Star State roots have a downside. "For Bush, it was a real problem," said Stevens, who worked on Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. "Certainly it was in New Hampshire, a big problem," when Bush lost the state's primary to Sen. John McCain.
Perry is "a Texan on steroids," said Dowd, and a candidate who casts his personality and beliefs in bold relief. Last weekend, the governor preached to more than 30,000 evangelical Christians at a Houston rally he organized as a prayerful response to "a nation in crisis."
His willingness to wear his religion on his sleeve has enhanced his standing with conservative Christians, a powerful force in Republican nominating contests. But it could alienate more moderate Republicans and, were he to become the nominee, the suburban swing voters who decide close elections in battleground states.