Tea Party members have mixed views on a Rick Perry candidacy

Posted Thursday, Jul. 21, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- Many of his favorite themes could have come straight from the Tea Party handbook: limited government, resistance to federal intrusion, contempt for big spending and "Obamacare."

As Gov. Rick Perry moves closer to a run for the presidency, he packs a message that seems well-attuned to the conservative activists who could influence the selection of the next Republican nominee. Indeed, among Tea Party supporters, Perry topped the field of announced and unannounced Republican candidates in a McClatchy-Marist poll last month.

But back home in Texas, Perry has drawn criticism from some Tea Party activists for his stances on immigration, toll roads and other issues.

And in Iowa and New Hampshire, which will host key early contests next year, leaders in the Tea Party and related movements effectively say the jury is still out on Perry until they take a closer look at his record.

"I don't think there is really a consensus," said Adrian Murray, former president of the 912 Project Fort Worth. "You could sit down with someone who absolutely can't wait for him to run, and you talk to others who are absolutely aghast at the prospect."

What isn't in doubt is the continued potency of the Tea Party movement, which emerged in 2009 and helped fuel Republican sweeps in Texas and other states in the 2010 elections.

Although the intense, placard-filled rallies that first helped define the movement seem to have diminished, Tea Party leaders say activists may be better organized and more energetic than ever ahead of an election that will decide the fate of President Barack Obama.

"No one really knows just how big [the Tea Party movement] will be, but clearly it is the primary source of energy within the Republican Party right now," said Lee M. Miringoff of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the June 15-23 poll with McClatchy Newspapers. "There isn't a Republican wannabe who doesn't want the blessings of the Tea Party right now."

The survey showed Perry with 20 percent support among Tea Party voters, ahead of other Republicans known for strong Tea Party appeal, such as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty and fellow Texan Ron Paul.

"As far as Tea Party supporters are concerned, they are very much at home with [Perry] both in terms of his social and economic conservatism," Miringoff said. "Even though he's on the sidelines, that's sometimes when you're at your strong point. ... What Tea Party supporters have seen so far, they like."

Nevertheless, some Tea Party activists in Texas say they clearly don't like some elements of Perry's stewardship as governor. Dallas patent attorney Ken Emanuelson, co-founder of the Dallas Tea Party, said many activists in Texas feel that Perry's stand on some issues tends "to leave something to be desired."

Immigration issues

Local Tea Parties and related groups were angered by the Legislature's failure to pass key immigration bills, including a "sanctuary city" ban that would have allowed local officers to question suspects about immigration status. Perry supported the measure and included it in the special session, where it died.

Emanuelson says Tea Party leaders believe that Perry could have pushed the bill more aggressively and want him to call another special session to deal with immigration issues.

"A lot of Tea Party people took him at his word that he would push it through the Legislature," Emanuelson said. "It doesn't look good that the governor had a signature issue that didn't get addressed by the Legislature."

Tea Partyers have also faulted Perry over his aggressive push for the now-dead Trans-Texas Corridor, which would have acquired thousands of acres of private property to build toll roads and other highways, and over his record as a former Democrat who was Texas chairman of Al Gore's presidential campaign in 1988.

He has also drawn criticism from Tea Party circles -- as well as from political opponents -- for a 2007 executive order that would have required all Texas girls to be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus before entering the sixth grade; lawmakers blocked the order.

A list of Tea Party grievances with Perry was posted on the website of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, said Jane Aitken, who coordinates the site. Aitken said the material came from the Texas Tea Party but declined to specify a source.

She said the material was posted for informational purposes and was not intended as an attack on Perry. The site also has information on other candidates.

Despite the concerns, Perry has championed many of the Tea Party's litmus-test issues and was one of the first officials in Texas to recognize the movement's political power.

He has spoken at numerous Tea Party rallies and echoes Tea Party-oriented themes in his book, Fed Up. His defiance of what he considers federal overreach and his calls to roll back government, exemplified by his insistence on spending cuts and no taxes during the recent legislative session, have been hallmarks of his decade as governor.

'Common goals'

Perry spokesman Mark Miner, while acknowledging that "there is always room for disagreement," said the state's longest-serving governor shares "common goals" with the Tea Party. Perry's policies "resonate with a majority of Tea Party activists," Miner said.

Perry, who began contemplating a presidential bid about two months ago, is expected to decide in several weeks. In Iowa and New Hampshire, some conservatives say they are trying to size up his record on Tea Party issues, while others say they are waiting until he enters the race.

"I think there is kind of a yearning for a candidate like Gov. Perry," said Rob Gettemy, a businessman from Marion, Iowa, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year. "We don't have a Tea Party candidate who has executive experience."

Others said Perry's oft-stated commitment to state sovereignty and his staunch opposition to Obama's healthcare policies would be pluses among Tea Party activists. But some are troubled by reports that Perry may not be as tough on immigration issues as they would like.

"If he's not strong on immigration, I've got a real problem," said Jim Carley of Altoona, Iowa, president of Save Our American Republic, a Tea Party-type group. But Carley said he has taken no position on Perry: "I'm not paying attention until he declares."

Karen Testerman, who ran for governor of New Hampshire last year, said, "I think basically the jury is still out on Gov. Perry."

In New Hampshire, she says, "you have to come here and meet people face to face and let [them] know what you have to say."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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