Philip Rucker of the Washington Post got some quality time with Rick Perry, and came away with the conclusion that in contrast to the Yosemite Sam we all mocked in 2012, the new Perry "comes across as studious, contemplative and humble." And Perry agrees: "We are a substantially different, versed candidate," he says, though we are apparently not so humble as to realize that speaking in the first person plural is a little weird.
But Perry is in a period of intensive presidential campaign preparation, which includes boning up on both presentation and policy:
This week, Perry began intensive news media training, as advisers staged mock on-camera interviews with hostile questioning. Perry also has been working with speech coaches at Podium Master, a GOP firm run by an alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to improve his presentation skills. Perry's advisers acknowledge that he will have little margin for error in next fall's debates. In 2011, he imploded at a debate by forgetting the three federal agencies he said he wanted to eliminate, stammering and saying, "Oops."
Experts at top think tanks have been flying to Austin to tutor the governor. On Thursday, he will sit for six hours with former Bush administration economists Greg Mankiw, Keith Hennessey, Glenn Hubbard and Diana Furchgott-Roth to discuss economic growth, labor markets, taxation and regulation.
Perry recently held freewheeling, all-day sessions on health care and income inequality, and plans more this month on energy and environment, budget and entitlements, education, immigration and financial services.
This is reminiscent of a series of seminars Karl Rove organized for George W. Bush when he was governor; a parade of Republican officials and experts dutifully flew to Austin to tutor the neophyte Bush on the things he might be asked about during a presidential campaign. It didn't enable Bush to fool anyone into thinking he knew a great deal about policy, but it was enough. The McCain campaign tried the same thing with Sarah Palin ("Campaign officials and McCain foreign policy advisers called Palin a quick study who has sound judgment that will serve her in good stead on national security issues"), with somewhat less success.
Avoiding that "Oops" moment is certainly a good idea, but let's remember that the problem it supposedly revealed wasn't that Perry lacked knowledge about policy, it was that his performance was less than polished. Nobody in the GOP cares whether any candidate is a wonk. They do want to know that the candidate won't screw up, however. And given that Perry's 2012 candidacy was one extended series of pratfalls, that's what primary voters will be watching Perry most closely for. Does he stumble over his words? Does he push the real-live-cowboy act too far? Does he seem like someone who could get through a general election campaign with a minimum of "gaffes"?
As I've been saying for a while now, the 2016 GOP nominee has to be someone who can build a bridge between the party's establishment and its base. There are only a couple of candidates who look like they could, at least at this early date. Scott Walker is one, and Perry is another. His state is basically a monument to the idea that ordinary people were put on this earth to serve the interests of capital. Yet he can sling the Obama-hatred as well as anyone, and isn't shy about feeding religious right fantasies of oppression.
But despite his world-class hair, up until now Perry hasn't been able to convince Republicans that as a candidate he has the smoothness and professionalism to carry a campaign through to the end. One thing you can say for him, though: he seems to understand both where he went wrong last time and what he needs to do to fix it.