At second glance, Texas Gov. Rick Perry not as conservative as some think

Supporters and opponents alike often describe Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) as a rock-ribbed conservative — an ideologue who rarely deviates from the Republican line or stakes out unorthodox positions.

And while Perry certainly falls well within the party’s comfort zone on most issues, he has made some surprising but consequential departures.

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His most significant departure from the conservative base came in 2007, when he bypassed the Texas Legislature and signed an executive order mandating that all girls entering the sixth grade receive a vaccine that helps protect from some strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cervical cancer.

His decision drew outrage from social conservatives, who claimed he was implicitly condoning premarital sex. It also stoked anger among conservatives of all stripes who objected to such government intervention in healthcare decisions. Dissenters quickly filed a lawsuit, and conservative anger spread from one end of Texas to the other. The state Legislature, which had always opposed the vaccine’s enforcement, quickly crafted a bill that overturned the executive order; it passed so overwhelmingly that a Perry veto wouldn’t have mattered.

At a press conference, Perry praised lawmakers who had voted in favor of the vaccine, despite their losing effort.

“No lost lives will occupy the confines of their conscience, sacrificed on the altar of political expediency,” he said.

Perry’s reasoning for the order was simple: Cervical cancer was a public health hazard, and requiring vaccinations was no different from provisions mandating polio vaccines. But in the end, the political blowback was too intense, and he lost a rare political fight.

More recently, he made another surprising departure from conservative orthodoxy. 

In 2010, Arizona passed and signed into law a bitterly controversial immigration proposal that was described by The New York Times as the “broadest and strictest immigration measure in generations.” 

It provoked strong resistance from many Hispanics and Hispanic groups and became a flashpoint in the nationwide debate, with many conservative groups supporting the Arizona plan.

Perry, though, broke with a large number of his Republican colleagues, including Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, on the issue. In a statement to the press, he said: “I fully recognize and support a state’s right and obligation to protect its citizens, but I have concerns with portions of the law passed in Arizona and believe it would not be the right direction for Texas.”

That statement helped earn him the designation of the most Hispanic-friendly politician in the nation by Somos Republican, a conservative Hispanic group. Though it went unmentioned by the group at the time, Perry has taken similarly unorthodox positions on immigration.

In 2001, he signed the so-called DREAM Act, which provided in-state tuition rates for certain undocumented students. Its provisions are similar to the Democratic-backed DREAM Act at the federal level — one ardently opposed by many conservatives.

Of the Texas bill, Perry said in a speech: “We must say to every child learning in a Texas classroom, ‘We don’t care where you come from, but where you are going, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there.’”

It’s worth pointing out that Texas has one of the largest Hispanic populations of any state —— 38 percent according to the latest census data. Hispanics are also the fastest-growing minority in Texas —— something the governor would be aware of.

But as buzz around a possible Perry presidential campaign builds, some national conservatives —— including those in Perry’s ostensible Tea Party base —— are taking a closer look at his extensive record.

Late last month, the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, which comprises 47 state groups, unleashed a missive on Perry, slamming him over his support for the DREAM Act, as well as the HPV mandate. The group took issue with a number of his other departures from conservative orthodoxy, including his decision in the 2008 Republican presidential primary to endorse former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani — or as the Tea Party group described Giuliani — the “liberal cross-dresser and gun-grabber.”

In fact, the fact that Perry backed Giuliani shows his political calculation can sometimes trump ideological conviction.

During his political career, Giuliani has supported abortion rights and backed a number of gun-control measures — two hugely important issues to many conservatives, who were angered by Giuliani’s stances. But at the time Perry endorsed him, Giuliani was the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and to some, Perry’s decision to back the centrist was all about priming himself for a national role in the presidential election.

There’s no mistaking it — Perry is a strong conservative. He’s favored some of the most pro-growth, anti-abortion-rights and pro-gun measures of any state. But it’s a mistake to say that he takes his talking points from a Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of the staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com