AUSTIN -- Former North Texas congressman Dick Armey crusaded for years in a futile effort to replace America's tax system with a simple flat tax.
Now that Gov. Rick Perry is embracing a flat tax in his bid to re-energize his Republican presidential bid, Armey couldn't be happier. So much so, says the former House majority leader, that he would seriously consider supporting Perry in the presidential race.
"This has vast appeal," Armey said Friday. "I cannot travel the country without running into somebody who asks me, 'Do you think we've got a chance to pass the flat tax ever?'"
Flat-tax advocates like Armey and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes -- who is advising Perry's campaign -- believe that the chances have never been better. Now Perry is prepared to shoulder their cause when he proposes a flat tax next week.
A CNBC survey in April 2010 found that 84 percent of Americans felt that a flat tax would be better for the country.
The idea of simplifying the tax system is also popular among Tea Party advocates and other conservative activists clamoring for a retrenchment of government regulations.
"People want bold solutions to this horror of a tax code," Forbes said in a telephone interview. "There will be a popular mandate for it next year."
A flat tax would replace the nation's current system of tax brackets, in which the percentage of taxes increases with income, with a single rate for everyone.
Opponents say converting to a flat tax would force poor and modest-income earners to pay more and would cut taxes for the rich.
Flat-tax advocates say it would create tax fairness by replacing the massive tax code, which they say is riddled with loopholes and tax breaks for special interests.
During his two presidential races, in 1996 and 2000, Forbes proposed a $36,000 exemption for a family of four and a 17 percent flat tax on incomes above that. He also proposed eliminating taxes on personal savings and capital gains.
Forbes, who is president and CEO of Forbes Inc. and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, said he expects a similar proposal from Perry.
"They're still working on it, but it'll be of a similar magnitude," Forbes said.
Perry served notice last week that he plans to call for a flat tax when he outlines the next component of his economic and jobs plan in a speech Tuesday in Gray Court, S.C. The speech follows Perry's unveiling of an initiative to create 1.2 millions jobs by boosting domestic energy production, and it is also expected to include proposals to shrink government and reduce federal spending.
"I want to make the tax code so simple that even [Treasury Secretary] Timothy Geithner can file his taxes on time," Perry said at the Western Republican Leadership Conference in Las Vegas last week.
After a slump in the polls, Perry and his supporters are hoping that the economic initiatives will ignite renewed support and propel Texas' longest-serving governor back into the lead for the Republican nomination.
Perry soared past former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to become the GOP front-runner within days after he entered the presidential race Aug. 13. But he tumbled from the lead after poor debate performances and other setbacks.
He apparently helped himself in a spirited attack on Romney in the latest debate, in Las Vegas. Armey says he believes that Perry, in his call for a flat tax, has seized on an issue that could help him defeat his Republican rivals and win the presidency.
"If Gov. Perry can convince the electorate at large, especially the active conservative base of the Republican Party, that he is committed to this as a serious policy matter and not as a short-term political gimmick, then I think he can win the nomination with it," said Armey, who is chairman of FreedomWorks, a national organization that advocates less government and lower taxes.
Armey said Perry could "probably win my support and a vast majority of conservatives in this country" if he shows "real conviction" on the issue.
Voter interest in Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan, which proposes a 9 percent flat tax on personal and business incomes and a 9 percent national sales tax, helped drive the Atlanta businessman's recent surge into the upper tier of Republican candidates, although the sales tax component has caused jitters among conservatives.
Romney, who has regained the front-runner spot, is proposing a 59-point economic plan with tax cuts, expanded energy production, reduced government spending and a rollback of what he calls burdensome regulations.
Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294