In the spring, Rick Perry made an official declaration that April 22–24 were to be “Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas,” saying it was “right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought and these dangerous wildfires.” It was not a one-off. Next up on the official schedule is “A Day of Prayer and Fasting for Our Nation,” to be held on August 6. Perry will be joined by thousands of Texans and a who’s who of evangelical leaders at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. Quoting the Bible, Perry asked Texans to join him in a prayer “for unity and righteousness — for this great state, this great nation and all mankind . . . for the healing of our country, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of enduring values as our guiding force.”
Such declarations may carry an electoral advantage. Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an honorary co-chair of the August day of prayer, says Perry’s public faith professions will make a “big difference” to evangelical and social-conservative voters.
“I think that was very important for George W. Bush that he talked about his faith. Rick Perry actually seems to be even more comfortable,” Perkins observes. He also sees Perry’s organization of this prayer day as what ignited the ever-increasing grassroots calls for Perry to jump into the race. “Prior to his call for the prayer, there was not a lot of discussion about him being a presidential candidate . . . I think this gave rise to that, which speaks to the fact that people are recognizing his leadership in this area.”
“He knows how to talk like an evangelical,” remarks Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and another honorary co-chair of the prayer day. “His heart is in the right place. On most [cultural conservative] issues he’s had a good record as governor. He will appeal to evangelicals.”
Ralph Reed agrees, noting that Perry is “very comfortable” talking about his faith and pointing to his gubernatorial record of promoting and signing “legislation that was pro-family and pro-life.”
“Not unlike [Michele] Bachmann, he has a very unique appeal both to social conservatives and tea-party activists,” Reed remarks.
But while evangelical leaders laud Perry’s willingness to promote prayer publicly, they are hesitant to immediately anoint him as 2012’s Mike Huckabee.
“He’s got some bumps to explain,” says Land. Perkins concurs, arguing that Perry has some “chink[s] in his social conservative armor.” Indeed, Mike Huckabee himself wrote a scathing e-mail last week lambasting Perry. “For all his new found commitment to hyper-conservatism, he’ll get to explain why he supported pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage Rudy Giuliani last time,” chided Huckabee.
Huckabee is not alone in his unease. Over in Iowa, social conservatives have also expressed concern. State representative Dwayne Alons, who endorsed Huckabee in 2008, criticized Perry for his assertion last week that it was “fine” for New York State to legalize gay marriage. “That may be the case that the state can decide, but I do think a person running for president, who has strong family values, should still come out in strong support of maintaining leadership . . . having marriage defined as between one man and one woman,” Alons says.
Bob Vander Plaats, head of an Iowa social-conservative organization, the Family Leader, and Huckabee’s Iowa campaign chair, noted likewise that Perry is “going to have to address” his positions on several issues, including gay marriage, the Giuliani endorsement, and the 2007 executive order that mandated all sixth grade girls receive Gardasil, a cervical-cancer vaccine.
Yet, despite the crowd of social conservatives already running (notably Rick Santorum, Tim Pawlenty, and Michele Bachmann), there seems to be a willingness both to welcome another entrant and, in Perry’s case, to forgive or overlook some flaws.
Gary Bauer, president of the social-conservative organization, American Values, and a former GOP presidential candidate, acknowledges that he did “a double take” when Perry became the only Republican governor to endorse Giuliani. But he points out that Perry wasn’t the only surprise Giuliani endorser last cycle: Well-known evangelical Pat Robertson also startled many when he endorsed Giuliani.
“In the real world, even in caucuses like Iowa where you have a lot of activists that show up, I don’t think at the end of the day who somebody endorsed in 2008 is going to be, for most people, the main factor,” Bauer says.
“I don’t consider it to be fatal,” agrees Reed,. “If it were combined with a lot of other things, it might be different.”
“Iowans are a pretty fair lot. Once [Perry] gets past those types of things,” Vander Plaat says, “they’re really going to want to hear about his vision for the country. If they can agree with that vision, they’re going to want to size him up to see if he’s the one who can defeat Obama at the end of the day.”
What has helped boost Perry in the eyes of evangelicals is a mindset that appears to be focused beyond the primary and to November 2012. Thus, while Land thinks that Perry needs to admit that he was wrong to mandate the vaccine, he approvingly concedes that Perry is a “very shrewd and crafty politician,” whose most appealing trait to evangelicals may be his ability to be “a formidable candidate against Obama.” What Perry could bring to the race, argues Perkins, is “a higher level of recognition, as the governor of the second largest state geographically.” He predicts that, if he announces, Perry “immediately jumps toward the head of the pack.”
Likewise, Bauer sees Perry’s gubernatorial experience as a substantial asset.
“Social conservatives, along with every other kind of hyphenated conservatives, are all looking for the same thing,” he surmises. “We want the most conservative candidate we can find who can also end the Obama nightmare.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.