By Greg Flakus
Texas Governor Rick Perry recently entered the race for the Republican Party presidential nomination and immediately soared to the top of public opinion polls. Perry is popular with many conservatives, but he may not fare as well with moderates and independent voters if he wins the nomination and faces President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
Perry’s main appeal to voters is that the state he has run for the past decade has created more jobs than any other. In debates with Republican rivals, he promises to follow his Texas model to boost national economic growth.
“You give people the opportunity to risk their capital by lowering the tax burden on them, by lowering the regulatory climate, and you will see an American economy that takes off like a rocket ship,” Perry said.
But his rivals, especially former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, question Perry’s criticism of the federal Social Security program for senior citizens.
“But the question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out [calling for the end of federal-controlled Social Security] and returned [the Social Security problems] to the states, or do you want to retreat from that?” asked Romney during a debate.
“I think we ought to have a conversation, ” responded Perry.
“We’re having that right now, governor. We’re running for president,” Romney quipped.
Critics say Perry’s criticism of Social Security and his stand on a number of other social issues may help him win the conservative votes he needs to secure the Republican nomination, but could undermine his appeal to the moderate voters he will need to win the presidency.
Mark Jones, chairman of Rice University’s Political Science Department, has been keeping a close eye on Perry’s presidential quest.
“If the focus of the campaign is not so much on jobs and the economy, but more is on these other issues such as social values, religion, things like Social Security, then I think the Perry candidacy would be doomed,” Jones said.
Jones says Perry will do better by focusing on the jobs created in Texas during his time in office. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas added more than 700,000 private sector jobs in the past ten years, while large states like California and Michigan each lost more than 600,000 jobs. Perry’s rivals question how much credit he should get, noting that the Lonestar state has advantages that were in place long before he assumed office. But Mark Jones says that won’t matter to voters.
“Texas has done well on jobs, that is tough to dispute and, from a political perspective that is difficult to dispute. Perry can say ‘I created the jobs, ” noted Jones.
He says Perry is generally popular with the conservatives who form the base of the Republican party today, but he does have a few weak spots, like immigration.
Perry campaigned for governor calling for tough measures against crime along the nearly 2,000-kilometer border Texas shares with Mexico.
“If Washington won’t protect our border, Texas will,” promised Perry in a campaign ad.
But Perry angered some conservatives by endorsing a comprehensive immigration reform plan that they regard as giving amnesty to those who violated US law.
“We need to craft and pass an immigration bill that allows those individuals who are basically economic immigrants to move back and forth across that border,” he said.
Mark Jones says this could be a problem for Perry among conservatives, but it could help him win Hispanic votes if he becomes the Republican candidate.
“He has sort-of tried to have his cake and eat it too [ have it both ways] on the immigration issue,” noted Jones. “He does not want to alienate the right, so he talks a semi-tough line, but he doesn’t do anything that might over alienate Hispanics who might otherwise want to vote for him.”
Jones thinks Perry’s biggest problem may be that some Republicans fear his more extreme positions could undermine him in a race against Mr. Obama. He says the more moderate Mitt Romney may take advantage of that.
“What Mitt Romney is going to do over the next six months is convince those same voters as well as moderate voters that Rick Perry is unelectable in the general election,” Jones said.
Rick Perry has never lost an election, but his whole career has been in Texas. His big national test will begin early next year with the Iowa caucuses and the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire.