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Perry faces daunting challenge in presidential race

Last week, Rick Perry began entertaining an array of top Republican fundraisers, policy experts and political backers at the Governor’s Mansion in Austin, using the holiday season and his last month as Texas governor to pave the way for a second White House bid.

Following more than a year spent in extensive public travel and private weekly sessions with policy experts aimed at improving his image and knowledge, political adviser Jeff Miller said Perry is playing host to “political and financial leaders from around the country” to help gauge the support he would have if he runs.

But Miller said in an interview Wednesday that Perry “has not made a firm decision.”

By all signs, the 64-year-old Perry faces a daunting challenge. Though two years of study and travel have prepared him better both politically and substantively, the 2016 Republican field will be much stronger, including up to eight current or former governors.

He has responded to his 2012 failure with changes both symbolic and substantive. He made his appearance more professorial than cowboy-like by donning dark-rimmed glasses and shedding his boots. And he studied the kinds of issues that sometimes tripped him up, most notably when he failed in a televised debate to remember the third Cabinet department he proposed to scrap.

His now-famous “Oops” came to symbolize a campaign that began with him as a potential favorite but faltered amid his post-surgical back problems and a series of controversial statements and poor appearances.

Miller said this month’s sessions are an expanded version of those he has been having, intended in part to show he is comfortable discussing the complex national and international issues with which presidential candidates must cope.

But Perry’s biggest problem might be the GOP’s far different outlook from four years ago, when a lackluster field vied to present the most conservative positions in their fight to oppose a president favored for re-election.

In 2016, the presidency will be open, and Obama’s unpopularity — plus the pattern in which parties generally hold the White House for just two terms — mean the GOP nominee will have a real chance to win.

The field could include such prominent figures as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the kinder and gentler son of libertarian former Texas Rep. Ron Paul; former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, trying to become the third President Bush; and the governors of such major battleground states as New Jersey (Chris Christie), Ohio (John Kasich) and Wisconsin (Scott Walker).

One benefit is that Perry can contrast Texas, with its stronger economy and lower unemployment during his 14-year tenure, with the lagging Rust Belt states.

But two potential aspirants threaten his Texas fundraising base: freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, who led several state Republican polls; and Bush, whose brother and father live in Texas and whose son is now Texas land commissioner.

So does the threat of an embarrassing trial after Perry’s indictment in Austin on a charge of abusing power for trying to force the resignation of a district attorney investigating potential state corruption after her conviction for drunk driving.

Besides the challenge of raising money, Perry’s lingering debate image means his performances on the trail and in high-profile settings such as debates will be closely scrutinized.

Though generally solidly conservative, his defense of a Texas law granting lower in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants energized opposition from vocal foes of immigration reform.

Finally, Perry is older than most major candidates except likely Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, a possible handicap when the public might be seeking a fresh face.

But with the proper preparation that was lacking last time, Perry’s superior retail politicking skills and engaging Reaganesque manner could help him in the months before the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary formally open the race in February 2016.

If he runs, his immediate challenge will be to raise enough money and perform well enough during those months to reach those tests with a chance of winning.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.

©2014 The Dallas Morning News

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