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Seizing the moment

Campaign 2012 | Rick Perry makes a strong presidential candidate, but questions of 'crony capitalism' need answers

Issue: "Remembering 9/11," Sept. 10, 2011

The Westwood Country Club, nestled on 11 oak-covered acres hugging the Lake Austin shoreline, has long been a hub for the central Texas elite. Its core is a medieval-style mansion, built in 1925, with flagstone walkways, Mexican tile floors, and hand-painted ceilings.

A decade or so ago 20 Texans attending a birthday party and garbed in casual country club clothes-collar shirts, khakis, dresses-were surprised to see Perry in T-shirt and short gym shorts striding into their gathering. He was coming straight from the exercise room, ready to do what he does superbly, work a small crowd-or a large one.

Perry knew most of the partygoers by name, shook hands, chatted, and walked off. That's Rick Perry: He loves campaigning, strides into settings without inhibition, and doesn't mind if people skip the exalted title and call him Rick.

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After living in Austin for two decades I know many Perry political allies, critics, and former staffers. They've helped me to develop a preliminary Perry SWOT analysis-strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats. Sources generally would not go on the record with anything critical about a potential future president of the United States, but the characterizations that follow all come from multiple witnesses.

In the eyes of conservatives, Perry's strengths are many: As supporters including Michael Sullivan (who heads Texans for Fiscal Responsibility) said, Perry has deep convictions and is willing to take heat for them. He is politically shrewd and knows how to seize moments. He's strongly committed to free enterprise and free trade. He has made solidly conservative judicial appointments. He's for border protection but is also attuned to Hispanics. He's a strong friend of Israel.

Perry as lieutenant governor backed a school voucher bill, which went nowhere. As governor he has signed bills defining unborn children as human life, limiting late-term abortions, requiring parental notification regarding abortions for girls under age 18, mandating ultrasounds, and prohibiting taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

Personally, Perry is loyal to loyal staff members, sometimes leaning against a doorpost as he asks them about family pressures, and sliding down to sit on his haunches as ranchers do. One staffer recalls being called into a meeting between Perry and a state senator angry about comments the staffer had made at a legislative hearing. Perry asked the staffer about his testimony, and then told the state senator, "That's exactly what I would have said." After the state senator left, Perry privately instructed the staffer on how to do better next time.

Perry, 61, has been married for 29 years to his childhood sweetheart, Anita. Confidantes say some marital problems may have occurred during the 1980s and 1990s, but a decade ago a deepening commitment became apparent, and Anita now strongly supports his running for the presidency. They have two grown children, Griffin and Sydney, who have attended the evangelical Austin Stone church.

Perry for years attended the mainline Tarrytown United Methodist Church but now goes to Lake Hills, an evangelical megachurch. A half-dozen years ago he became more publicly evangelical. Only God knows whether the change is primarily theological or political, but evangelicals who have traveled privately with Perry say that Perry won't eat without praying first.

Both Republicans and moderate Democrats such as Houston lawyer Mark Yzaguirre speak of the loyalty Perry inspires and gives-but say that can become a weakness if friends exert influence. Perry alienated some conservatives by supporting former roommate Ric Williamson's push in 2001 for a "Trans-Texas Corridor," 4,000 miles of mostly toll roads that would have required the purchase or seizure (by eminent domain) of 580,000 acres from private owners.

Perry eventually backed off, but that episode is one reason associates raise concerns about "crony capitalism." Big donors to Perry's campaign have received support for their interests in low-level radioactive waste disposal, horseracing, poultry, new technology, and other endeavors. As one former aide said, "Some fleas have attached themselves to the dog." No evidence has emerged of personal Perry corruption, but both friends and foes say questions involving deferential treatment need to be answered.

In 2007 Perry issued an executive order mandating that all Texas sixth-grade girls be vaccinated with Gardasil, which may reduce the incidence of cervical cancer resulting from sexual activity. Perry's former chief of staff was a lobbyist for Gardasil manufacturer Merck. Parents with religious or philosophical concerns could fill out an affadavit to exempt their child. The GOP-heavy Texas legislature overturned Perry's executive order by veto-proof margins. Last month Perry told a New Hampshire voter, "I didn't do my research well."

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