Rick Perry: number one with a bullet

The gun-carrying Texas governor is suddenly the top Republican contender

Number one with a bullet

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Barack Obama’s approval ratings of 43 per cent are the lowest of his presidency—as low as George W. Bush’s in his second term. The number of net new jobs the gasping American economy created in August was exactly zero. And on a sunny afternoon in a meticulously manicured suburb of Manchester, N.H., a state that plays a key role in picking presidents, several hundred Republican voters have gathered to hear from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the man who has vaulted to the lead of a raucous race to oust the President. The crowd skews somewhat grey-haired and more than a little country-clubby. Men sport khakis and button-downs, the women tailored dresses and high heels. Tidy white golf carts shuttle guests from their cars to a white tent that has been set up on grounds studded with American flags.

Even among this well-heeled group there is fear about where the country is headed—financially, politically, and even metaphysically. “The country, the people have lost their faith,” says Joyce Gardiner, a 68-year-old retired marketer from Londonderry. “Obama,” she purses her lips, “is inept.” James Shephard, 57, who says he lost his job at a plant that manufactured bomb-disposal equipment, is here to take pictures of the event for a Tea Party group he recently joined. “The vice is squeezing tighter and tighter,” he says. “People say they have to do something before the boat goes over the cliff.”

A murmur of excitement runs through the crowd as the governor arrives. Perry is tanned, square-jawed and sporting the salt-and-pepper mane that gave him the nickname Governor Goodhair. Along with his blue shirt and khakis, he sports some Texas flair: black ostrich leather shoes and a gold-tipped belt bearing a buckle embossed with a large “R.” Perry smiles broadly with a wink here, a thumbs-up there, as a glowing introduction is read out: the son of tenant farmers, Air Force veteran, still married to his high school sweetheart, and governor of the state that created 40 per cent of all the new jobs in America since 2009. “A person of action,” sums up the host. Perry takes the podium with the swagger of a man who has been governor for a decade (he took over when George W. Bush moved to the White House), who has never lost an election (he switched his affiliation from the Democrats to Republicans in the 1980s as they ascended in Texas), and who carries a concealed weapon (the .380 laser-sighted Ruger came in handy last year when, while jogging, he shot and killed a coyote who threatened the family dog.)

Dropping his occasional g’s in a Texas twang, Perry delivers a small-government, anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-Washington sermon that Republican candidates have been delivering across the country. “I’ll go to the Oval Office every day and try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as can be,” he declares. Then he drills down on the two things that have helped him jump to the front of the Republican presidential race—ahead of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who had, until Perry entered the race on Aug. 13, commanded a formidable lead in national polls.

First, there is the jobs record in Texas. Of Obama, he says, “He’s lost more than a million jobs while he’s been President, and I’ve created a million jobs since I’ve been governor.” Critics attribute that record in part to an immigration-fuelled population surge that created new service jobs even though the state’s overall unemployment rate is average. Moreover, many of those new jobs are low-paying and don’t offer health benefits. The state, where many oil and gas companies are headquartered, has also benefited from high energy prices. But jobs are at the core of Perry’s sales pitch. “We know how to create jobs in the state that I come from,” he says. “One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a job. Mr. President, that is not a recovery, that is an economic disaster,” he says.

And then he stands here in New Hampshire, Romney’s backyard, to deliver a message aimed squarely at the former frontrunner: “We don’t need a nominee who is going to blur the differences between themselves and Barack Obama.”

This is a Republican party that, despite a history of nominating the “next in line” candidate, is resisting uniting behind Romney. He may have executive experience, a business track record and succeeded at running the Salt Lake City Olympics. The party establishment may consider Romney to be the guy who could appeal to crucial Independent voters. But as Obama appears more and more beatable, Republicans see a chance to put into office not just a Republican with broad appeal, but one who will deliver the conservative red meat—dramatically smaller government and a repeal of Obama’s health care reform law. And Romney, who passed his own version of health care reform that was a model for Obama’s program, is having trouble proving that he’s that guy. Romney has even been protested by some Tea Party groups that helped Republicans take control of the House of Representatives last November.

“Coming off of 2010, Republicans are confident that they can put up a conservative and get elected. They think all this concern about electability is overblown,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. “The longer they see a weaker President Obama, they are convinced they don’t have to settle for half-measures, they don’t have to settle for Mitt Romney.”

Not long ago, Perry may have been considered extreme, even unelectable on account of some of the things he has said and written. In his book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington, published last November, before he decided to run for the presidency, Perry refers to the Social Security program for senior citizens as a “Ponzi scheme” that violates the Constitution and “a crumbling monument to the New Deal.” Rather than backing off the statements, he has repeated them.

At a Tea Party rally in 2009, Perry suggested that Texas could secede from the U.S. “We’ve got a great Union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.” Campaigning in Iowa in August, he had harsh words for Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous, in my opinion,”

He has called evolution “a theory that’s out there,” one that has “gaps in it.” He has also said climate change science is “manipulated” by scientists seeking money from grants.Such statements might have rendered him a fringe candidate in past elections, but not in this year’s boisterous campaign.

Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party caucus leader in the House of Representatives, who shook up the race earlier this year, has also made her share of hard-to-take-seriously comments, such as a pledge to reduce gas prices to $2 a gallon. In August, Bachmann suggested hurricane Irene was a message from God. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ ” Bachmann later called the comment a “metaphor.”

She managed to win the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, an early gauge of popularity in the state that is traditionally the first to choose the party’s candidate. But the Texas governor has now eclipsed her.

Past Republican presidential nominees have tended to be those with broader, more centrist appeal. John McCain had moderate positions on climate change and campaign finance reform, and a prickly relationship with the religious right. In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” and as president grew the federal government, introduced a new entitlement—a drug benefit for senior citizens—increased the deficit and approved the bailout of Wall Street that touched off a populist revolt. “The difference between then and now is, there are a lot of Republican voters who were very discontented with George W. Bush and don’t want another George Bush in 2012,” says Scala. “They want a conservative, period. Not a compassionate conservative. Not a centrist conservative. Not a moderate conservative. They want a conservative.”

And amid the anti-establishment, anti-Washington clamour, Romney is continuing to move to the right in some areas. For example, Romney once supported supporting reducing emissions to combat climate change, but after Perry had entered the race, he declared that, “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans,” and added, “What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”

By doing so, though, Romney feeds voter doubts about his sincerity. And he is refusing to go as far as Perry. Where Perry rails against regulation, including those laws put in place after the financial crisis in 2008, Romney said earlier this month in South Carolina, “We don’t want to tell the world that Republicans are against all regulation.”

Yet Perry is winning so far. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month suggested he has the support of 38 per cent of Republican primary voters nationally, compared to Romney’s 23 per cent. “It seems like the party is caught in a civil war over whether to be pure or electable,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential politics specialist at the University of Texas in Austin. “The purists are in the ascendancy because they have all the energy.”

Democrats see an opportunity to paint Republicans as extremists, based on the statements of Perry and Bachmann. But it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to shift voters’ focus away from the miserable jobs situation under Obama. A recent Washington Post poll showed that 60 per cent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in late August showed Obama beating Perry by five points and Romney by only one.

Perry’s record as governor matches his hard-line rhetoric, to some extent. For example, he signed a law that would require women to undergo fetal sonograms (done with a trans-vaginal probe in early pregnancy) before having an abortion. (In August, a federal court struck down parts of the law as unconstitutional.) In August, he organized a day of prayer and fasting for 20,000 Christians in a Texas stadium and vowed to create a National Day of Prayer if elected president.

But he will have some explaining to do in the primary. There is the small matter of his having been a Democrat, albeit a conservative one, until 1989. He even chaired Al Gore’s presidential campaign in Texas in 1988. On the hot-button issue of illegal immigration, Perry has taken a softer stand in Texas than some Republican voters would like. For example, he signed a law allowing the children of undocumented immigrants to receive subsidized in-state university tuition. He opposes fencing off the border with Mexico. “If you build a 30-foot fence, the 35-foot ladder business is going to get good,” he quipped in Manchester.

Perry also pushed for a system of toll highways in Texas that conspiracy theorists called the “NAFTA super-highway”—part of a perceived plot to merge Mexico, the U.S. and Canada into a single government. The initiative outraged farmers who did not want to give up land for the highway’s construction. Perry also issued an executive order mandating that all Texas girls in Grade 6 be vaccinated against a virus that causes cervical cancer. The order angered religious groups and was repealed by the Texas legislature.

For now, though, for the voters who have come to see Perry in New Hampshire, the most notable thing about the governor’s fiery remarks is that he’s not apologizing for them. “I’m high on this guy,” declares Maria Ryan, 47, a hospital CEO, after hearing Perry speak. “I think this guy is tough enough. Mitt just wants to please.” She says she was initially concerned about his remarks about secession, but no longer. “I think he was just speaking out about how disgusted he was about Washington,” she says, adding that she shares the sentiment. Jim LeFebvre, a 57-year-old voter from North Conway, shrugs off Perry’s Ponzi scheme remark. “I’m afraid he is correct,” he says, noting that the system is on track to fall short of money necessary to cover all promised benefits. As for Romney: “He did what he had to do to get elected in a liberal state. Where he really stands is a question for me.”

Frank Emiro, a former New Hampshire state representative, also waves off Perry’s past statements. “Candidates are attacked on one or two words, not on full paragraphs.” A twentysomething Republican voter, Tim Noronha, takes a more pragmatic view of the governor’s more controversial positions. “I’m assuming some of those things will go on the backburner if he’s elected.”

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