As many grass-roots Republicans remain in search of a conservative candidate with the pizazz to go toe-to-toe against President Obama, a man from deep in the heart of Texas who was tea party before the tea party was cool appears to be giving the presidential race some thought.
Gov. Rick Perry has insisted on multiple occasions that he has no interest in the presidency, but RCP has learned that political associates have begun to nose around quietly on Perry's behalf.
A Texas pol who is close to Perry has been telling a few key strategists that the nation's longest-serving governor sees a vacuum and is waiting to be summoned into the race. This source believes that could happen by late summer. Without fellow Southerners Haley Barbour or Mike Huckabee in the race -- and with Newt Gingrich's early troubles raising further doubts about the current lineup -- there could be a glaring niche for Perry to fill.
According to another well-connected Republican, at least one Perry confidant has been very quietly making inquiries about the political terrain in the nation's first voting state of Iowa. A third Perry associate, RCP has learned, has been heralding a small contingent of Iowans with the time-tested line that is often used by would-be candidates who are leaving their options open: "Keep your powder dry."
Perry's aides have long made it clear that the tough-talking Texan, who succeeded George W. Bush in Austin in 2000, would not seriously entertain the idea of mounting a White House run before the state's legislative session finishes at the end of this month. That date is now less than two weeks away, and the 2012 presidential field remains fluid.
The Perry chatter has been so discreet that nearly a dozen early-state GOP operatives and consultants contacted by RCP hadn't heard a word about it. But they are unfazed that the buzz exists.
Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and Bush administration veteran, said, "I'm not aware of Perry making calls, although it wouldn't surprise me."
Perry would hardly be the first prominent Republican to raise presidential expectations, however unobtrusively, only to later back away -- and his associates remain adamant, in public at least, that nothing has changed.
"The Governor has not called anyone about running for POTUS. I'd like to know of one person who says they received such a call," Dave Carney, a Perry political strategist who now works for Gingrich's presidential effort, said in an email. "He is calling raising funds for the Republican Governors Association, of which he currently serves as chair."
Indeed, "Perry for president" buzz has tended to pop and fizz over time. At the groundbreaking of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Nov. 16, 2010, much of the talk among longtime Bush veterans centered on these three words: "Perry is in." Six months later, not much has happened.
Perry's presidential prospects may ultimately be contingent on the decision made by the only GOP White House hopeful who can boast a resume and home state that is large enough to mess with Texas: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Perry shares Palin's dexterity with the simple, tough-talking language that tends to fire up the tea party faithful and is similarly adept at connecting on a human level that comes across as decidedly anti-politician, despite his more than a decade in the governor's mansion.
"Later brother, we're stepping out," was how Perry ended an October interview with RCP, in which he spent nearly as much time opining about the Austin City Limits music festival and his impending hunting trip as he did his own gubernatorial campaign.
Palin endorsed Perry in his contentious primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison early last year, and they are both larger-than-life figures to the tea party rank and file. In other words, the race might not be big enough to hold both a Texas cowboy and a certain Mama Grizzly from the 49th state.
As Palin relies on her unrivaled star power and intensity of support to afford her the luxury of waiting to see how the field develops, Perry cannot remain idle quite as long, particularly in putting himself in a position to begin raising money in a timely enough fashion to run a national primary campaign that starts early in the new year.
Perry stopped by the Republican National Committee's state chairmen's meeting in Dallas on Tuesday and spoke about one of his favorite topics: federalism and the 10th Amendment. He said that the eventual Republican presidential nominee would have to have a firm understanding of the role of states' rights.
Perry remains well known to the Republican base these days. In December 2009, his visage adorned the cover of the New York Times Magazine, and he showed last year by beating back Hutchison -- who enjoyed the backing of Bush administration allies, as well as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- that the Rick Perry brand remains formidable.
He was a headliner at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last April, and it was announced last week that he'll be reprising that appearance at this year's conference in June.
The event is a cattle call for 2012 GOP hopefuls, with Gingrich, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and businessman Herman Cain all confirmed to speak, along with Perry.