AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has something to prove.
In January, he’s moving out of the governor’s mansion he and his wife, Anita, have called home for nearly 14 years, longer than any other Texas governor. His legacy in the state will be lasting, but his past is marred by 45 seconds on a debate stage, one missing government agency and one word — “oops” — that all but sank his 2012 presidential campaign.
Now he wants a second chance.
“I think over the course of the last two years, people have — you know, they realize that what they saw in 2011 is certainly not the person they’re looking at in 2013, 2014, 2015,” Perry told msnbc in an exclusive TV interview at the governor’s mansion this week.
Perry is spending his last month in the governor’s mansion preparing for what comes next. He’s invited dozens of donors, friends, potential supporters and political contacts from across the country to dinner on the home’s lawn, showing a slickly produced video that showcases his time as governor and highlights his record creating jobs and boosting the economy. Some already support him; but others are still undecided, including several top former donors and bundlers for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Many, including nearly a dozen state legislators and officials he helped get elected in 2014, are from the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
He’s assembled a presidential campaign-in-waiting at a nondescript office building on Congress Avenue just down the street. He’s doing intensive media training and holding policy briefings, trying to put the finer points on what could easily become a presidential campaign message.
Overhanging all of the optimistic preparations: The potential for one big mistake. Privately, his advisers acknowledge that Perry is walking around with what amounts to a personal detonator.
“I think everybody has some margin for error,” Perry said in the interview. “I’ve probably got less than other folks. But that’s okay.”
If he runs again, he’ll have to answer the question that was left lingering in the wake of his 2012 campaign: Is Perry smart enough to be president?
“Running for the presidency’s not an IQ test,” he said. “It is a test of an individual’s resolve. It’s a test of an individual’s philosophy. It’s a test of an individual’s life experiences. And I think Americans are really ready for a leader that will give them a great hope about the future.”
Perry insisted that he’s already well down the road to convincing supporters that he’s changed.
“When you look at the people that are pouring in here to [join] us, the policy individuals that have said, ‘Listen, we want to come help you become even better prepared as [you] go forward,’ is already the answer to that,” he added.
Still, Perry’s future as a presidential candidate very much depends on how the rest of the GOP field forms. He’s still one of many on a long list of potential candidates — including several with deep ties to his own home state. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is a tea party darling who crushes Perry in polls of Texas Republicans. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s family has its political heart in Texas. Even Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul grew up here.
“It’s a pretty big place,” Perry said when asked if the Lone Star State could handle so much ambition. “But I think more importantly, until any or all of those individuals have officially said, ‘I’m in’ — to speculate on it is just that, speculation.”
Bush getting into the race would put Perry in direct competition with dozens of donors and bundlers, many of whom have deep loyalty to the Bush family; it would test Perry’s ability to raise the millions of dollars he’ll have to pull in if he wants to be considered a top-tier candidate.
Perry’s involvement with the Bush family goes back decades. While it’s publicly cordial, it’s fraught with tension that goes back to the 1990s, when then-Gov. George W. Bush declined to appoint one of Perry’s relatives to a state judgeship.
Then, in 2007, Perry told an Iowa audience that the 43rd president was “not a fiscal conservative.” Bush aides took notice.
Perry still doesn’t shy away from the remark — though he refused to characterize Jeb Bush in the same manner. “I was making a distinction between myself and George W.,” Perry said. “I haven’t gone back and analyzed the record of Jeb, and quite frankly, don’t think there’s any real reason to be doing that.”
There’s some tension with Cruz, too. Perry backed Cruz’s primary opponent for Senate in 2012, then Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. He called the government shutdown “political theater” in an interview with the Washington Times — a position that actually puts him in relative sync with Bush family associates. Many close to the Bush family privately say that with the shutdown, Cruz lost all hope of any help from them, even though he got his political start on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign when he worked as a lawyer on the Florida recount.
Cruz, for his part, has taken at least one backhanded jab at the next-in-line Bush: When asked about a potential Jeb Bush run on CNBC, Cruz compared him to nominees Bob Dole, John McCain and Mitt Romney, who he says failed to turn out base conservative voters.
Cruz is a potential threat to Perry because he excites the tea party and conservative base that has historically backed the governor. Cruz crushed Perry and Bush in a straw poll of Texas Republicans this year, and Perry advisers acknowledge that Cruz will drive media coverage and raise a lot of money in small donations.
What does the governor think of the state’s junior senator now?
“He was paying attention in debate class,” Perry said.