Illustration by Jordan Awan
Illustration by Jordan Awan

One month after Texas Governor Rick Perry told the Des Moines Register that he felt called to run for president, he is scheduled to answer the summons at an event this Saturday in South Carolina.

To get a sense of what a Perry presidential campaign might be like, his appearance last weekend at a gathering of Christian conservatives in Houston is instructive. The event offered high-tech visuals, thumping Christian rock music, country singers and plenty of old-time religion.

The sponsors were a who’s who of cultural reaction: the American Family Association (which footed most of the more than $1 million cost), Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Dr. Richard Land, the conservative president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Perry brought men to their feet and women to tears, easily pureeing the roles of public official and preacher. He’s comfortable telling us to welcome the light of Jesus into our dark lives. For all the event’s hype, the turnout was disappointing. (In the parlance of Perry’s home state, it was more hat than cattle.) The air-conditioned stadium, which has a 71,000-seat capacity, was less than half-filled. Perry violated one of the ten commandments of politics: Always rent a room too small for the crowd.

The event was still big, providing additional encouragement to those who believe Perry will be a shining star in a lackluster 2012 field. After seven hours of praying and fasting, the Texan proved he is every bit as appealing to religious conservatives as Representative Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota firebrand who is hoping for a convincing win at this Saturday’s straw poll in Ames, Iowa. (Perry isn’t on the ballot, but his supporters will be writing in his name.)

Mixed Blessing

Perry is a mixed blessing for Republicans. He’ll compete with Bachmann for voters on the right wing of the party, and if he trounces her, the party elite will breathe easy. Bachmann is every bit as polarizing as Sarah Palin. As she becomes better known, polls will show she has no chance of winning the White House. That, however, is why a Bachmann vs. Mitt Romney fight may ultimately be in the party’s interest; it will force mainstream Republican primary voters who don’t much like Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, to come to his aid, lest Republicans waste their chance to oust the Kenyan socialist in 2012.

Perry complicates that scenario. He can bleed Bachmann’s Tea Party and religious support while remaining a member in good standing of the establishment, the governor of one of the nation’s largest states, a superb fundraiser, a Southerner -- and a man.

If Perry eclipses Bachmann, he and Romney may be in for a long, drawn-out struggle that weakens them both. Their brawl -- across a primary landscape in which early states award delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all -- will be mesmerizing. By the time it’s over, it will be hard for Romney or anyone else to swing the party back to the middle for the general election.

And Perry could win the nomination. In his decade as governor, Perry has done more than rabble-rouse, which is pretty much the sum of Bachmann’s record in Congress. Trouble is, general election voters may not cotton to his accomplishments.

Upon close inspection, his Texas economic miracle turns out to run on extremely low wages. Given the state’s chronic deficits and low levels of taxation, public services are spare. According to Gallup, Texas has the highest percentage of residents without health insurance. Almost 1 in 4 children live in poverty. The state’s public schools rival those of perennial bottom dwellers Mississippi and Alabama and aren’t likely to improve after $4 billion in education cuts this year. All that may not trouble Tea Partiers, but it’s hardly an attractive package to independent voters.

Far-Out Ideas

In addition, Perry places right behind Bachmann when it comes to saying far-out things. He called the 2010 BP oil spill an “act of God” and told Texas residents that prayer was the best way to combat the state’s devastating drought. (It didn’t work.) He has variously advocated abandoning Social Security, scuttling Medicaid and ending the federal income tax. For good measure, he has mused that if socialism continues its inexorable spread from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Texas may opt to secede from the Union.

This year, Perry signed into law “emergency legislation” forcing a woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram, after which she’ll be told everything about the fetus. And after Texas’s anti-sodomy law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003, he supported the state legislature’s refusal to remove the law from its books and called the justices “nine oligarchs in robes.”

As the Houston rally closed, Perry predicted that it would be “a day that people are going to discuss for years to come.” That might be preferable to them discussing his record. Although Perry is chairman of the Republican Governors Association, only one fellow Republican governor -- Sam Brownback of Kansas -- attended his religious revival. Brownback joined Perry for a big Christian bearhug on stage. If Perry drags down Romney while failing to capture the political middle himself, that may be the last Republican hug he gets.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on this article: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.