"If political capital could be expressed in dollars, Republican Gov. Rick Perry might be looking for a federal bailout this year."
By JAY ROOT
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
AUSTIN -- If political capital could be expressed in dollars, Republican Gov. Rick Perry might be looking for a federal bailout this year, and his falling stock among conservative voters would be the place to start bailing.
Perry owes his rise in Texas politics to an energetic coalition of evangelicals, anti-tax hawks and grassroots party activists. But he has rattled them hard this year with moves to vaccinate teenagers against a sexually transmitted virus, his veto of a popular bill aimed at curbing government condemnation powers and, most recently, his embrace of New York Republican Rudy Giuliani, who sent shivers down the spines of many conservative GOP voters.
"The pro-life, pro-family conservatives who are Rick Perry's base and have helped him win election after election despise Rudy Giuliani. And Perry's endorsement was a finger in our eye," said Adam McManus, a conservative talk show host in San Antonio. "My listeners have not given up on him per se, but he is treading on really thin ice right now."
Giuliani withdrew from the 2008 presidential race last week, and Perry has since endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has troubles of his own with conservatives. They're still angry that he supported what they see as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and that he opposed a federal ban on gay marriage. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter is so enraged at McCain that she promised on Fox News to support -- even campaign for -- Democrat Hillary Clinton if McCain is the nominee.
She chalked up Perry's sudden interest in McCain to future job hunting.
After endorsing McCain last week, Perry told reporters that his support for GOP mavericks in the 2008 presidential race shouldn't signal any self-interested reach for a federal post, much less any change in his own views: "I'm still just as conservative as I was five years ago and as I will be five years in the future," he said.
Perry has not given any clear indication about his next moves, other than to say he isn't looking to become a vice presidential candidate. He's already in position to become the longest-serving governor in Texas, but there are no term limits on the office, so Perry can run again in 2010.
Peggy Venable, director of the Texas office of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative think tank, applauded Perry for sticking to controversial stands on policy despite the uproar that has sometimes sparked with base voters. But on a political level, she said, Perry sounds more like he isn't worried about the next election.
"He seems like a governor that's not going to run again," Venable said. "He has usually been one to forge his own way. He has not really been one to go along to get along."
In the meantime, conservative leaders who still strongly support Perry dismiss the notion that he has somehow come unhinged from his ideological moorings. Kelly Shackelford, president of the conservative Plano-based Free Market Foundation, supports former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But he said he doesn't harbor any ill will against Perry for his presidential picks.
"Gov. Perry, time and time again, has proven his credentials on issues that matter to us," Shackelford said. "Hey, I've got friends that root for the [New York] Giants, but they're still my friends. I just tell them, 'You're backing the wrong team.' So that's what I say to Gov. Perry: 'You're still my friend, but you backed the wrong team.'"
Perry's allies point to a consistent track record of promoting conservative changes throughout a long career in state government. In particular, they note that in 2003, Perry was the first governor since World War II to sign a budget that lowered state spending. The resolutely anti-abortion governor also championed curbs on medical lawsuits and a ban on gay marriage. He has publicly promoted private school vouchers, prayer in public schools, protections for property owners and unrestricted access for licensed Texans to carry concealed weapons.
Perry is highlighting his unapologetic conservatism by releasing a book, On My Honor. In it, he defends the values instilled in him as a Boy Scout and rails against "the radical leftist movement that seeks to tear down our social foundations" and force the scouting movement to embrace "the homosexual agenda."
"I'm quite proud of my conservative credentials, and as a matter of fact I'll put them up against anybody who wants to put them up and say, 'Let's measure yours against mine,'" Perry said last week.
Still, the governor's recent moves have prompted a little head-scratching. His enthusiastic promotion of Giuliani, who has supported abortion rights, gay marriage and gun restrictions, particularly stunned many fellow Republicans because it seemed to represent a repudiation of the conservative agenda Perry has championed. Republican Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who backed former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson before he pulled out of the presidential race, said after the governor announced in October that he was supporting the former New York mayor, "Get a rope."
"Why would the most conservative governor in Texas history endorse a pro-choice, rabidly anti-Second Amendment former New York City mayor who supported Democrat Mario Cuomo over Republican George Pataki for governor of New York?" Patterson asked.
Perry has always described himself as a conservative, but the Giuliani endorsement marks another step in his long journey across the political spectrum.
Perry, a native of Paint Creek, a community north of Abilene, was elected to the state House as a Democrat in 1984. And in 1988, he briefly joined Al Gore's Texas presidential steering committee. One year later, Perry became a Republican, and in 1990 he took on one of the Democrats' leading liberal stars: Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. Perry portrayed Hightower as out of touch with conservative Texas voters and, surprising pundits at the time, unseated the populist Democrat.
Don't 'underestimate him'
Elected lieutenant governor in 1998, Perry was in the right place at the right time when George W. Bush went to the White House, leaving him to take the reins as governor in late 2000. But Perry, whose willingness to work and enthusiasm on the campaign trail are legendary, won in his own right in 2002. Capturing just 39 percent in a nutty, five-way race, he was re-elected to another four-year term in 2006.
Leading up to the race, he delighted conservative voters -- and angered liberals -- when he chose the gym of Fort Worth's Calvary Christian Academy as the ceremonial venue to celebrate the passage of anti-abortion and anti-gay measures in 2005.
But weeks after his re-election, at the beginning of the 2007 session of the Texas Legislature, Perry provoked a conservative uproar by issuing an executive order requiring teenage girls to be vaccinated against human papillomavirus, which has been linked to cervical cancer.
Lawmakers soon passed a bill overturning the order. At the conclusion of the legislative session, Perry came under fire again for his veto of an eminent domain bill that would have given more protections to private property owners in government condemnation hearings.
Once more, many conservative activists were caught off guard. The bill had passed the Legislature handily, and Perry was on record in support of curbs on eminent domain powers.
"There are few things Texans cherish as much, or more, than their private property rights," Perry said in 2005 after signing a bill that restricted condemnation powers.
In his veto message on the 2007 bill, Perry said the legislation went too far and would enrich a cadre of condemnation lawyers at public expense. The veto has since stirred unrest in the conservative bastions of rural Texas. Getting that same bill into law in 2009, when the Legislature meets again in regular session, has become the chief objective of the Texas Farm Bureau, said its president, Kenneth Dierschke.
Without its protections, Texas farmers, ranchers and landowners would have to give up huge tracts of land for the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor and other public works projects, without being fairly compensated, he said.
Despite all the discontent, longtime Perry observers aren't about to start writing his political obituary. They say he's shown an uncanny ability to energize conservative voters, even when they're mad at him. Will Lutz, editor of the conservative Lone Star Report, cited Perry's efforts to woo back base voters who were upset after he signed hate-crime legislation they opposed.
"When he's facing an election, he can be very effective and good at pulling rabbits out of a hat," Lutz said. "You don't want to underestimate him."
Jay Root reports from the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau, 512-476-4294.
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