Anita Perry: The nurse Gov. Perry wants to take with him to the White House

Presidential candidate Rick Perry no doubt scored some points with the romantics in the crowd during this week's Tea Party debate when he was asked what he'd bring to the White House.

Perry's answer: His wife Anita.

He said she would make a "most beautiful" and "thoughtful" first lady. The answer, however, may have left millions of Americans with another question: Who is Anita Perry, anyway?

Since jumping into the race for the GOP nomination last month, the outspoken Texas governor has become the main challenger to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who had been leading in most polls. While Perry has garnered significant attention, much less is known about his wife, a nurse and public health advocate.

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Newspaper profiles depict Mrs. Perry as a small-town Texan who has had to overcome her initial "shyness" over the past decade as Texas' longest-serving first lady. She has mostly kept out of the national spotlight thus far - her keynote address to the Pinellas County Republican Party in St. Petersburg Saturday evening is one of a very few public appearances outside the Lone Star State – and remains unfamiliar to non-Texans.

Still, the first lady is emerging as a significant factor in the presidential primary. 

In a July interview with the Salem Radio Network, Gov. Perry said his wife was inspiring him to "get out of his comfort zone" and run for president because she was "disheartened" with the administration "healthcare-wise."

"Her father is an old country doctor," Perry said, "and she sees the demise of really quality healthcare and being able to take care of people like they need to be taken care of in this country and the innovations that have occurred in medicine."

Anita Thigpen Perry, 59, has a bachelor's degree in nursing from West Texas State University (now West Texas A&M University) and a master's degree in nursing from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Texas Tech University's School of Nursing was renamed in her honor in 2008.

She worked as a nurse for 17 years in numerous settings, including surgery, pediatrics, intensive care administration and teaching. That experience adds credibility to her criticism of the federal healthcare law, a welcome asset for Perry as he struggles to explain why more than a quarter of Texans don't have health insurance - the highest rate in the nation.

Anita Perry’s childhood was spent “making house calls with her dad,” Texas Tech University Chancellor Kent Hance told The Hill. “Healthcare is a big issue to her and her dad being a doctor – a country doctor – she certainly has a lot of opinions that were formed even at an early age over healthcare.”

One of her top priorities, increasing immunization rates for children, contributed to Perry's biggest headache so far in the campaign when he had to explain his support for mandatory human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations to the crowd at a Tea Party debate that wants the government out of their lives.

Perry quickly contained the damage, calling his 2007 decision to require the vaccination through executive order a "mistake." (The Texas legislature overturned the mandate). He said families could easily opt out, and that vaccinating young girls would protect them from the leading cause of cervical cancer.

His most vocal critic on the issue, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, lost much of her ability to capitalize on the controversy after she suggested the vaccine could cause "mental retardation" - a baseless claim thoroughly rejected just last month by the Institute of Medicine.

Another of Bachmann's allegations -- that "crony capitalism" influenced Perry's decision -- lingers. Vaccine maker Merck has contributed at least $28,500 to Perry's elections efforts since 2000.

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And Anita Perry herself is not immune to the charge.

Much of her $60,000-a-year salary as a fundraiser for the nonprofit Texas Association Against Sexual Assault comes indirectly from donations made by companies with business before the governor, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Anita Perry has said that her support for immunization stems from years of watching people suffer and die needlessly from preventable diseases. As Texas's first lady, she has worked with the state's Department of Health to increase immunization rates and has served as the national chair for childhood immunizations with the March of Dimes, where she volunteers.

Perry has also been a strong advocate for the nursing profession. Her efforts to encourage Texans to join the profession have helped the state's rate of vacant nursing jobs drop from 11 percent in 2003 to 8 percent today, according to the first lady's website. (Her office did not return a request for comment.)

Two endowments have been set up in her name, at West Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at San Antonio. And she’s been a cheerleader for Texas Tech, Hance said, helping recruit professors for the school she attended during her first year of college.

“The biggest problem we have in nursing is most people who have a Master’s or a PhD, they don’t want to go into teaching,” said Hance, a former Democratic congressman. “There’s such a shortage of nurses that someone with those types of credentials can make a tremendous salary in the private sector.”

Perry's other priorities include raising awareness of breast cancer and Alzheimer's. Outside the healthcare field, she created the annual Texas Conference for Women in 2000 and has led economic development delegations around the world while also fighting for preservation efforts in her home state.