SAN ANTONIO – Gov. Rick Perry was a champion of fiercely conservative social activism long before the tea party was born. He oversaw the "Texas Miracle" job-creation boom and became the most powerful Texas governor since Reconstruction.
But nationally, Perry is better known for his 'oops' presidential debate brain freeze or for not opposing forcefully enough the notion that Texas could secede from the union. For many outside the Lone Star State, he's a political punch line on par with Dan Quayle — if he's known at all.
Now, the longest-serving governor in Texas history is quitting his day job. Perry announced Monday that he won't seek a fourth full term in office next year,
"The time has come to pass on the mantle of leadership. Today I'm announcing I will not seek re-election as governor of Texas," Perry said Monday. "I will spend the next 18 months working to create more jobs, opportunity and innovation I will actively lead this great state. And I'll also pray and reflect and work to determine my own future."
But with another presidential run being speculated, Perry may first need to concentrate on rebuilding his tattered image with non-Texans.
"He's starting behind the eight ball," said South Carolina-based Republican operative Hogan Gidley, an adviser to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — both unsuccessful presidential hopefuls who have remained national conservative forces.
Perry never lost an election during his 27-year political career and became a near-instant front-runner when he strapped on his signature cowboy boots and strode into the race for the GOP presidential nomination in August 2011.
But his White House run flamed out spectacularly, culminating in a debate in Michigan where Perry remembered that he'd pledged to shutter the U.S. Departments of Commerce and Education but forgot the third one, the Department of Energy. Quipped late-night comedian Jimmy Fallon: "It turns out George Bush was actually the smart Texas governor."
It wasn't the first time Perry's mouth had gotten him into trouble. Ending a television interview in 2005, Perry smirked at the camera and signed off: "Adios, mofo."
Asked about secession after a tea party rally in April 2009, Perry quipped: "If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what may come out of that?"
Those incidents, however, did little to lessen Perry's influence in Texas, where he is considered the most powerful governor since the Civil War.
Perry, who took office when then-Gov. George W. Bush left for the White House in December 2000, set the tone for his tenure the following June — vetoing more than 80 bills in what became known in Austin as the "Father's Day Massacre." Since then, he vetoed scores of other would-be laws, including a $35 billion public education budget and a ban on executing mentally disabled inmates.
But most of Perry's power has come from his sheer longevity. He remained in office long enough to tap loyalists — and sometimes even his top donors — to every major appointed post statewide.
"He's made the state into his personal fiefdom," said Matt Glazer, a Democratic consultant and head of the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas. "Nationally, that evaporates and you have voters who are more sophisticated."
Still, Gidley and others note that Perry has been successful at appearing regularly on national television — even attracting a great deal of media attention in his recent job-poaching tours of California, Illinois and New York as he tried to convince firms to relocate to Texas.
Perry also still has his TV anchorman good looks — he's often dubbed "Governor Good Hair." He has been a ferocious fundraiser buoyed by both grassroots activists and mainstream Republicans while presiding over a flourishing Texas economy.
"So many people are supporters and are going to stay supporters," said Roy Bailey, a Dallas businessman who has been a top Perry fundraiser.
Perry has been a leading voice on many social issues conservatives hold dear, including states' rights, relaxed environmental regulations, strict abortion limits and opposition to gay marriage.
An Eagle Scout, Perry urged the Boy Scouts not to accept openly gay youngsters. The governor, an avid defender of gun rights, once produced a laser-sighted pistol from his running shorts and shot a coyote while jogging in rural Austin.
Under him over the past decade, Texas has created a third of the net new jobs nationwide, and Perry credits the state's relaxed regulatory climate and limits on civil lawsuits. But critics point out consequences of little oversight, such as the lightly-regulated fertilizer plant that exploded in April in the town of West, killing 15 people.
Perry detractors also note that the governor opposes expanding Medicaid coverage in Texas — a centerpiece of the White House's health care reform law — even though his state has the highest rate of people without medical insurance in the country.
As an example of just how powerful Perry has become in his home state, Glazer noted his veto last month of funding for Texas' ethics-enforcement unit, which investigates wrongdoing by public officials. The governor said he was doing so because the district attorney in charge, Rosemary Lehmberg, had refused to resign following her conviction for drunk driving.
Glazer pointed out that the unit was investigating the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, an agency which has faced a criminal investigation into an $11 million grant that was given to a private company without the proper review process — and amid questions about whether Perry donors were involved.
Perry first won a seat in the Texas Legislature as a Democrat in 1984, when Texas was still reliably blue. As the state turned deeply red, Perry shifted too. Democrats have not captured a statewide office in nearly 20 years.
The opposition party insists, though, that a booming Hispanic population means it's only a matter of time before Texas switches back — a notion Perry has dismissed as a "pipe dream."
It didn't look so far-fetched last week, however, when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis was on her feet for 12-plus hours as Democrats used the filibuster to help block sweeping new restrictions on abortion in Texas. The filibuster made Davis a national political sensation, prompting many supporters to urge her to run for governor next year.
Perry's response was swift. He not only immediately called lawmakers back to work for an extra special session to approve the law, he also suggested Davis should have understood the value of each human life because of her history as a former teenage mother who went on to graduate from Harvard Law School.
"What if her mom had said, "I just can't do this. I don't want to do this?," Perry asked. "At that particular point in time I think it becomes very personal."