By Aaron Blake - 04/13/10 10:00 AM EDT
NEW ORLEANS — Texas Gov. Rick Perry likes to compare himself to University of Texas football coach Mack Brown.
Perry’s logic: If the national championship-winning Brown keeps winning and Perry keeps governing successfully, why would Texans want to oust either of them?
So if Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, wins in November, would he consider going national?
“I don’t have any interest in going to D.C. as a president, vice president, member of Congress, car guard — none of the above,” he said in an interview with The Hill.
But even if he says he’s not interested, people — and specifically the Tea Party folks — are interested in him.
Perry has been governor of the second-largest state in the union for the last decade, and he’s got a good shot at another four-year term this November.
But only recently has Texas’s top executive become the subject of presidential rumors, and he admits his national persona hasn’t really been a priority.
But after his primary win over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), people are starting to take notice. And if the Tea Party emerges as a real political force, Perry could be positioning himself as its poster child.
At the same time, Perry professes no urge whatsoever to seek any kind of federal office.
“You can’t be the governor of the second-largest state and not have some national persona, but I could care less,” he said.
Despite his protesting, Perry’s national persona only grew this weekend, when he delivered a stemwinder of an anti-Washington speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference.
Perry has bigger fish to fry right now, though, with Democrats targeting him for defeat this year in a reelection race that some are calling a toss-up. If he gets past that, the buzz will only grow.
And perhaps no other politician at this weekend’s presidential cattle call took more strides to attach himself to the Tea Party than did Perry, who calls himself a “Tea Party participant.”
“I’m very comfortable with being around them and having their support,” he said. “I would suggest to you, in this last primary, I was the Tea Party candidate.”
That’s saying a lot, given the presence of Tea Party activist Debra Medina in the race. She took 19 percent of the vote.
Perry said the media got it backward.
“Debra Medina got the disgruntled and the libertarian vote,” he explained.
Medina’s candidacy aside, Perry put himself on the map by holding Hutchison below one-third of the vote. The popular senator began the primary race as the front-runner, but Perry wound up winning rather easily, beating her 51-30 and even avoiding a runoff in the three-candidate field.
Hutchison voted for the bailout, and Perry said that any candidate who voted for the bailout should take note of her fate.
“This wasn’t focused on Kay Hutchison,” Perry said. “Any Republican that voted for the bailout made a bad vote.”
Perry said the wealthy White will have to make the same argument Hutchison tried to make — that his record as governor is weak. And a coy Perry said he’s ready to have that debate.
“He will have to make the argument to dump a successful incumbent governor,” Perry said. “Hmm — sounds a lot like the primary.”
Despite the tough primary, Perry’s campaign said it came out of it with $4 million in its campaign account. White’s campaign, meanwhile, has $6 million cash on hand.
White spokeswoman Katy Bacon said the Tea Party rhetoric and Perry’s primary showing don’t bode well for him, pointing out that he lost 49 percent of his party’s vote last month.
“Now Rick Perry is facing a much broader electorate, and Texans are sick of the extreme, divisive, hyper-partisan approach of this career politician,” Bacon said. “That’s why 61 percent of Texans voted against him in the last general election.”
In addition to his 39 percent showing in a four-person field in 2006, Perry has to deal with an anti-incumbent sentiment that is dragging down governors from Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick (D) to Iowa’s Chet Culver (D) and Ohio’s Ted Strickland (D).
But Perry dismisses that such a mood exists in his state. After all, he said, Mack Brown’s doing just fine.
“If it was for real in Texas, it would have manifested itself in the primary,” he said. “It’s no more than the University of Texas supporters who think Mack Brown has been the head coach at UT for too long.”