Rick Perry is the sort of Republican who convenes prayer rallies, scoffs at global warming and says of evolution, 'There are some holes in that theory.' Some 234 prisoners have been executed in Texas during his time as governor a modern-day U.S. record and Perry says his idea of gun control is "Use both hands." In short, Perry is the sort of Republican who makes heads melt in faculty lounges from Madison to Middlebury and is perfectly suited to lead the right's long-standing battle against the coastal elite. Yet on Sept. 12 he found himself center stage, at a debate among Republican presidential candidates, being booed by a Tea Party audience.
His crimes? Trying to require a vaccination for Texas schoolgirls to fight cervical cancer, which was according to rival Michele Bachmann of Minnesota an offense against liberty. And supporting a policy of letting children of illegal immigrants who live in Texas attend college at in-state tuition rates which, several other candidates insisted, reeks of lawlessness. Perry looked a little dazed. A man who opposes the direct election of Senators isn't accustomed to being flanked on the right.
When you look at Perry, it's easy to picture him in an old western. His late arrival in the primary field in August certainly felt like that moment when the big stranger steps through the swinging saloon doors and all heads pivot and the plinky-plunk piano dies away. The new sheriff loomed in the polls: a dozen points ahead in the latest CNN survey, overshadowing former front runner Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and sucking the air from Bachmann's win in the Iowa straw poll. But now it's flying fists, smashed whiskey bottles and Perry crashing through a plate-glass window, all suggesting that this movie might not have reached its final reel.
Perry's rough-and-tumble entry has enlivened a previously plodding race, forcing Romney to abandon his play-it-safe strategy and go for his guns. Inside the Obama White House, the beleaguered troops are delighted. With the economy in shambles, their man will run for re-election on the theme of Republican extremism and since Perry's debut, pumped-up debate audiences have been cooperating. At a debate in California, there was hearty applause for his execution record, while in Florida, someone shouted, "Yeah!" in response to a question about letting patients die if they fail to buy health insurance. Perry's squint, swagger and occasionally snarled syntax all recall the last Texas governor to run for President, but in this year's GOP there is no compassionate modifying conservative.
Which is really Perry's challenge now that he leads the Republican field. The Tea Party wing of the GOP is easily the most important force in American politics today, but it is also a volatile, hard-to-please and impatient suitor. In less than a year, the faithful have fallen in and out of love with Bachmann and Donald Trump, and many still yearn for another white knight. Hopefuls capture the movement's heart at their own peril.
Perry understands that success depends on taming the Tea Party just enough without spooking the rest of the GOP. "Am I going to make everybody happy with every position?" he asked in an interview with TIME on Sept. 13. "I've made a lot of decisions, and I've got a substantial record. From time to time I'll get something wrong. I'll admit it, as I've done, those times when I have not been correct. But people will never have to guess where I stand on an issue."
Perry can plausibly claim to embody a wider range of Republican assets than his leading competitors. A master at sensing the ebbs and swells of public opinion, he caught the Tea Party wave on Day One, delivering a featured speech at one of the rallies where the movement was born in 2009. He has executive experience like Romney, talks as tough as Bachmann and can be almost as prickly in his individualism as libertarian iconoclast Ron Paul. And he knows how to win. In compiling a perfect 6-0 record in statewide races, Perry has scored every variety of victory: upstart beats incumbent, incumbent survives tough primary, incumbent wins in squeaker and blowout.
Moreover, Perry doesn't mind kicking over idols in the high church of conventional wisdom, a favorite Tea Party pastime. He's the one who calls Social Security a "monstrous lie," throwing in "Ponzi scheme" for good measure. Social Security is called the third rail of American politics, which is, of course, a reference to the electrified portion of a subway track. Touch it and you die. But there aren't any subways where Rick Perry comes from.