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CPAC 2015: It’s Do or Die for Rick Perry

As former Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) prepares to launch his second presidential campaign, the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) could very well be a do-or-die moment for him, as he seeks to reconnect with grassroots conservatives who are concerned he is out-of-step with their views on issues like immigration and border security. During the past month, Perry has made comments that indicate he may be taking a more moderate path than in 2012, putting him at odds with the traditionally conservative CPAC audience.

In Perry’s final speech to the Texas Legislature back in January, he touted his efforts at bipartisanship. “There is not a single accomplishment that occurred without bipartisan support,” said Perry. “I believe we are at our best when we get beyond our differences and attempt to seek common ground…Compromise is not a dirty word when it moves Texas forward.”

The problem for Perry, of course, is that bipartisanship has become a dirty word in Republican primary contests. A POLITICO article from earlier this month — appropriately titled, “A new, more moderate Rick Perry” — added further evidence of Perry’s more moderate stance, describing how he has “sought to portray himself as a more moderate, thoughtful contender than he was during his 2012 campaign, when he entered the race as a firebrand conservative.”

One major challenge for Perry as he seeks to capture the energy and support of conservatives in 2016 is the emergence of Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on the national political scene. Viewed by the grassroots as staunchly conservative, the firebrand Senator has captured the attention of activists in not just Texas, but across the country. Part of Perry’s chatter about compromise is assumed to be targeted at marginalizing Cruz as too abrasive and too far to the right to be electable, but Perry will still have to establish his own conservative bona fides if he is to get any momentum with Republican voters weary after nearly two terms of President Barack Obama.

To examine whether Perry would be able to successfully satisfy the conservative wing of the GOP, Breitbart Texas conducted exclusive interviews with several top political consultants, key reporters who covered the 2012 presidential election, and grassroots activists to get their take on what they expect to see from Perry.

Republican strategist Rick Wilson was among those who were optimistic about how Perry would perform. “I think Rick Perry has definitely been on the comeback trail and has impressed conservatives with the Rick Perry everyone knew before the 2012 primary,” said Wilson. “I think he has a chance at CPAC to continue that streak and reintroduce himself to conservatives.”

Perry’s challenge, of course, is that the Rick Perry everyone knew during the 2012 primary was a candidate who made a late but strong entrance — quickly surging to the top of the polls as Republican primary voters embraced him as a straight-talking conservative alternative to former Governor Mitt Romney (R-Massachusetts) — only then to crash back down after a series of poor debate performances. The end was brutal after such a promising start, culminating in the infamous “Oops” moment, when Perry could not remember one of the three federal agencies he would like to abolish at a November 2011 debate. Perry would officially pull the plug on his campaign two months later.

The “Oops” debate may be the most memorable moment for many from Perry’s 2012 campaign, but for a number of political observers, the real trouble started in September 2011 in Florida, when Perry’s support for a statute that allowed certain illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas universities became a contentious issue during the Republican primary debates.

As Breitbart Texas reported, in 2001, Perry had signed into law HB 1403, which allowed undocumented immigrant students who had lived in Texas at least three years and had a Texas high school diploma or GED equivalent to qualify for in-state tuition if they signed an affidavit that they intended to apply for permanent residency status as soon as they could.

HB 1403 passed by a substantial majority vote in both chambers of the Texas legislature with only four dissenting votes, but has been criticized since then as being one of the “magnets” that encourages people to enter the United States illegally. Perry defended the law six years later in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, and has repeated his support several times since then, including at an appearance at The Texas Tribune Festival in September 2014.

Going back to the 2012 campaign, Romney and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania) were among those who sharply criticized Perry for his support of HB 1403. Perry tried to defend the law a debate in Orlando in September 2011, saying, “if you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children because they will become a drag on our society…This was a state issue. Texas voted on it. And I still support it today.” The audience booed Perry in response.

Marc Caputo, POLITICO’s Florida political reporter, was in Orlando covering that debate for the Miami Herald. Caputo viewed the Orlando debate and another one in Florida as the moments “that started to change the trajectory for Perry.” The substance of his responses “wasn’t very good,” said Caputo, and then after the “I don’t think you have a heart” line, “people booed him.”

“What he said on immigration, appeared to be out of step with conservatives,” too moderate, said Caputo, and “he was on defense after that” on immigration issues.

Tampa Bay Times Political Editor Adam Smith was also in Florida covering the 2012 election, and agreed that the September 2011 Orlando debate was “where [Perry] really tanked,” calling it a “horrific performance.”

JoAnn Fleming, Executive Director of Grassroots America – We the People, told Breitbart Texas that Perry’s position on immigration was “more of an issue now than it’s ever been…the spotlight is even harsher than it was in 2012.”

Fleming has been a critic of Perry’s border security efforts for some time, joining other grassroots activists in several press conferences at the Capitol during the past year to highlight problems, such as the over-concentration of resources in the Rio Grande Valley sector while other major stretches of the Texas-Mexico border remained neglected.

“Words mean things,” said Fleming, “and Governor Perry is not being honest if he tells everyone that he secured the border when he was Governor.” She much preferred the approach of Perry’s successor, Governor Greg Abbott, praising his plan for aiming “to truly gain operational control of the entire Texas border – not merely engage in political theater,” as Breitbart Texas reported.

Fleming also slammed the in-state tuition bill as one of “the magnets that attract people to come here illegally,” along with other parts of the “social safety net,” like free public education, free health care, subsidized housing, and other welfare benefits that are available to those who cross illegally.

“The American taxpayer gets to pay for that,” said Fleming. “The basic tenet of liberty is, you don’t take other people’s stuff…the American people are tired of having the government commandeer their assets for people who are willing to break the law.”

Perry may find himself at odds with the current Texas Legislature on this issue very shortly. Several of the members are still smarting from their support for the bill in 2001 being used against them in the primary elections last year, and a bill that would repeal it was filed at the beginning of this year’s legislative session by State Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford), as Breitbart Texas reported.

Fleming also said that the grassroots activists she knows are “fed up” with attitudes like Perry’s “you don’t have a heart” comment. “If Governor Perry persists in this Jeb Bush like definition of ‘compassion,’ I don’t think he’ll be able to course correct from what happened to him in 2012,” she concluded.

With a contrasting view, Justin Keener, an Austin-based conservative consultant who regularly works with grassroots and conservative leaders, told Breitbart Texas that Perry’s personality and his record on economic and fiscal issues could help make him an attractive candidate to CPAC attendees.

“The thing with Rick Perry,” said Keener, “is that when you talk with the grassroots, everyone seems to like him, [and] they like what he has accomplished,” like cutting taxes, reducing regulations, and the state’s booming economy.

Keener said that people generally had a good idea where Perry stood on the issues, so the challenge for him now was to prove that he is better prepared for the campaign than in 2012, to prove that he had “done his homework” like he said he has.

“You don’t hear anyone saying, ‘no, he won’t make a good President’…he has the resume and everyone recognizes that, but can he make it through the debates?” asked Keener. “It’s all about, is he ready? What is he going to do in the debates? Is the media going to pick him apart?”

Of course, showing that he is “ready” for the debates is more than just memorizing conservative-friendly talking points. Perry will need to show that he can articulate his position on issues and his vision for America’s future in a way that avoids antagonizing his audience, as he so disastrously did back in September 2011 in Orlando.

Perry will have his chance to convince conservatives he deserves their support with a prime spot on this year’s CPAC agenda, 9:00 am Friday on the main ballroom stage. The CPAC organizers, the American Conservative Union (ACU), have added a new wrinkle to the keynote speeches, allowing the speakers to devote part of the time to Q & As from the audience, which may allow Perry a chance to prove he could perform better in debates this time around.

There are high expectations for Perry’s remarks, due in no small part to his own strong performance last year. At CPAC 2014, Perry energized the crowd with a rousing speech, and then participated in a criminal justice panel where he was able to showcase some of the noteworthy criminal justice reforms passed in Texas under his watch, as well as his own ability to participate in a substantive policy discussion.

Notably, Perry did not focus on immigration or border security issues during either appearance at CPAC last year. If he chooses to participate in Q & A, he will be unable to avoid discussing those topics. The hundreds of reporters, bloggers, and citizen journalists who attend CPAC will certainly seek to ask him about those hot-button topics. Perry is likely to face the difficult choice of either backtracking on some of his past more moderate comments, risking the accusation that he is a flip-flopper, or telling a conservative audience that he thinks they are wrong but hoping it does not come across as harshly as he did with his “you don’t have a heart” comments.

Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican consultant who is attending CPAC, thought that the new structure allowing Q & As was “a bit of a wild card,” but believed Perry would be prepared. He noted that Perry’s “track record at CPAC is pretty good…he’s someone who knows how to fire up a crowd and has done so in the past.”

According to the Tampa Bay Times‘ Smith, the key for Perry is that “he’s just got to show that he’s a lot stronger than he was last time.” Smith pointed out one key advantage Perry has: “There’s no overwhelming front-runner right now…it’s a fairly wide open race.” If Perry performs well at CPAC and surprises everyone, said Smith, “that’s a great story…he could gain momentum.”

Smith also noted that Perry will have a much harder time making any headway in Florida than he did in 2012, when none of the candidates had strong ties to the Sunshine State. Now, the political scene in Florida is dominated by former Governor Jeb Bush (R-Florida) and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida), explained Smith. “There’s almost no buzz for Rick Perry among Republicans in Florida except by [Governor] Rick Scott, who still talks about him all the time [but he’s] not exactly an influential figure,” he continued, referring to Scott’s perennially low poll numbers.

In general, Perry faces a field of competitors who overlap with his potential support in several ways. In addition to Senator Cruz, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is likely to pull support from Perry among libertarians. Dr. Ben Carson has never run for political office but has nonetheless captured the imagination of a number of tea partiers and activists. For the conservatives looking for executive experience, Perry is expected to be joined by multiple former and current Governors: Bush, Governor Scott Walker (R-Wisconsin), Governor Chris Christie (R-New Jersey), and possibly others.

In Mackowiak’s view, Perry is “floating under the surface right now…which is not necessarily a bad place to be,” especially as some other potential candidates have made minor stumbles under the press spotlight recently. Mackowiak said that he did not think that Perry was likely to do anything that would completely derail his campaign at CPAC, but a successful performance would be “helpful” and “generate positive buzz.”

“CPAC is an opportunity to gain momentum quickly,” he continued, “to get yourself on the tips of the tongues of the activists and fundraisers,” and start building support in advance of the debates coming this fall.

Peggy Venable, the Policy Director for Americans for Prosperity – Texas, told Breitbart Texas that she will be attending CPAC and believes that conservative activists are looking forward to hearing from Perry. [Note: Venable spoke to Breitbart Texas on her own individual behalf, not for AFP.]

“Texas is seen as a rock star among the states,” said Venable, describing the job creation and economic record over recent years as “setting us apart.” In her view, Perry is not as appreciated in Texas as he is in other places, and “people are excited about him being there [at CPAC]…there’s a real enthusiasm.”

However, she added, “whether that manifests itself in a successful presidential campaign, it’s too early to tell.”

[Disclosure: Matt Mackowiak and JoAnn Fleming are Breitbart Texas contributors.]

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.

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