The South finally has its standard-bearer in the 2012 presidential race.
If, as seems certain, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) makes plain his intention to enter the contest with a speech in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday, he will fill the gaping void for a credible candidate from Dixie.
Other prominent Southern politicians like Gov. Haley Barbour (Miss.) and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) took a hard look at the race but then stepped back. That left only rank outsider Herman Cain (Ga.), libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has spent decades in Washington, as the South’s representatives.
“There is more of an affinity [in the South] with Perry than there is with Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty,” Dave Woodard, a Republican consultant and a professor at South Carolina’s Clemson University, told The Hill. “They don’t wear boots! They don’t play football! He’s one of us! That’s a very big deal.”
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Perry’s home state, agreed:
“Cultural affinity is a very powerful motivator in terms of who you listen you, who you respond to and who you ultimately vote for,” he said. “To see and hear someone who looks like you and sounds like you articulating things you believe in is very powerful.”
Geography is not the be-all and end-all, of course. Few people really think of Ron Paul as a Southern candidate, even though he has as good a literal claim to the title as Perry.
Perry is a potent candidate for the Republican nomination, at least on paper, because his deep Dixie roots are augmented by a range of trenchantly conservative policy positions, from abortion to gun control; a strong electoral track-record; and his ability to assert that Texas under his leadership has felt the effects of the Great Recession much less acutely than other states.
Put it all together, and it’s easy to see why conservatives dissatisfied with the existing field are so excited about him — and why he discombobulates backers of former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) in particular.
Perry seems especially well-placed for two of the three vital early contests. In first-to-vote Iowa, the traditionally high proportion of Republican caucus-goers who are born-again Christians could help Perry, much as it propelled Huckabee to victory in 2008. In South Carolina, Perry looks almost tailor-made for victory.
“Culturally, he is very much in synch with South Carolina voters — more so than Mitt Romney,” Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told The Hill.
The importance of the South Carolina primary — the winner has become the GOP’s nominee in every presidential election for three decades — adds an extra frisson to Perry’s decision to choose Charleston as the location for his expected curtain-raising speech on Saturday.
“You look back over the past series of primary elections and you see that the key, really crunch battle has been South Carolina,” Ferrel Guillory, a University of North Carolina professor and an expert on Southern politics said. “It’s no accident that Perry would begin his campaign there. If he can’t win South Carolina, he can’t win the nomination.”
There is, of course, a flipside to an emphatic Southern identity. Just ask Haley Barbour, whose stumbles over race earlier this year fed into all the wrong kind of preconceptions about Dixie conservatives.
Perry could have an advantage over Barbour, however. His home-state is Southern but not of the Deep South. Its demographics are more diverse, its recent history is less defined by the battle over civil rights and, as a consequence, race is a less loaded issue.
Still, Guillory cautions, “The Republican Party in the South in an almost exclusively white party. There are a number of issues that will come up that don’t mention race but that have racial freight hanging off them — things like school choice, and issues to do with cities and suburbs. How he talks about those issues will matter.”
More broadly, there are questions about how well a candidate so deeply rooted in the South would fare in a general election.
“Perry’s southern identity may be an advantage in the GOP primaries but could be a disadvantage in the general election,” McKinnon said. “He will have to do a lot of work in the general election, if he is the nominee, to convince voters he is not just a stereotype of the Southern conservative.”
Others suggest that these issues might be overdone.
“In the end, I think that geography matters little,” New Hampshire Republican strategist Jamie Burnett said. “The fact that a candidate may be from the South is far less important than the message and the messenger. If your message ultimately doesn’t resonate with voters, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
If Perry commits a series of missteps, it may well be true that his Southern identity will not be enough to save him. But, in a close race for the Republican nomination, its power cannot be discounted — even if the party’s recent history with a Texas governor vaulting onto the national stage might look decidedly mixed to some.
“The negatives [to his Texan identity] are ‘well, look at Bush,’” Dave Woodard said. “But Perry may be the genuine deal. He could be the real cowboy that we were waiting for in 2000.”