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Carlson: Rick Perry's comeback headed off at the pass

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

It was all going so well for Texas Gov. Rick Perry – until the indictment.

His efforts to move past a disastrous 2012 presidential run that had become a reliable punch line for a senior moment seemed to be working.

He’s dropped a few pounds and added hip glasses. He isn’t wasting a minute of the border crisis, calling up the National Guard, testifying before Congress and visiting the troops at Camp Swift, where he rolled up his sleeves and tried out a state-of-the art telescope designed to see coyotes in Juarez, Mexico.

He has traveled to Israel, not to mention Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s been on all the Sunday talk shows, made the cover of a national magazine, and tiptoed through the minefield of late-night comedy without making a fool of himself. He’s prepared position papers, addressed think tanks and hired Steve Schmidt, a former adviser to the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Top that off with an indictment – that turned out not to be as bad as it seemed – and the most handsome mug shot in history and Perry could be on his way to a comeback.

It may be too soon to take his presidential prospects seriously, but not too soon to look at his feverish activity closely. Who would have thought the slow one in cowboy boots would pick a fight on substance with the other out-there 2016 presidential hopeful, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. In The Washington Post, Perry called Paul “curiously blind” to growing threats in Iraq and faulted him for the nation’s growing isolationism. Paul shot back in Politico that the governor’s new eyewear didn’t allow him to see any more clearly and that hawks like him were wrong on just about everything.

Perry has a long road back from his 2012 run, but he was a front-runner then for a reason. He was the made-to-measure candidate to appeal to most of the factions in the party. He is an active Christian, and hosted a day of prayer and fasting at a Houston stadium before announcing his 2012 bid. He’s for low (or no) taxes and loathes Obamacare. He loves guns (he has a concealed-carry permit and an A+ rating from the National Rifle Association) and the death penalty. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage (he recently compared gay people to alcoholics). He’s brought companies and employment to Texas.

The one area his views didn’t match those of his party emerged during the 2012 primary debates, when Mitt Romney rattled him by moving his immigration stance sharply right, to the land of self-deportation. A month earlier at a debate in Florida, Perry got labeled as pro-amnesty for saying to those who didn’t agree with a popular 2001 Texas bill allowing in-state tuition for the so-called Dreamers: “I don’t think you have a heart.”

Perry left his own heart in Orlando, Florida. Since then, he’s overcorrected to the point of becoming Mr. Law and Order at the Border, suggesting the latest surge of children crossing into Texas could foster a crime wave and import Ebola. Seal the border more tightly or Islamic terrorists will be swimming the Rio Grande.

The governor’s other blunder – the “oops” heard round the world – might be harder to erase. The fateful debate was the last of the cycle, and Perry got hopelessly lost over which cabinet departments he would abolish as president. His predicament was so dire, I found myself rooting for him as if he were my daughter struggling at a spelling bee to remember if “i” came before “e” except after “c.” Yes, you can name that third department, I know you can do it. No one’s that stupid.

Time ran out and so did his campaign. Has this moment imprinted itself on the collective hard drive of voters the way Jimmy Carter’s killer rabbit, Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers and Ross Perot’s crazy aunt in the attic has? Or maybe it will be remembered as just an endearing flub, like Bill Clinton’s endless speech at his debut at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, or George W. Bush’s inability to pronounce nuclear, or Ronald Reagan’s killer trees? Perry blamed everything but the weather for his bad debate performances: up from his sick bed too early after back surgery in July, high doses of pain medicine, being targeted as the front-runner.

He might revert to his prior image as governor of a huge state whose voters wouldn’t have given him three terms if he were stupid. The Lone Star State still has reason to be grateful for bottom-of-the-class Alabama and Mississippi, but it has vastly improved on its formerly high infant mortality rate and increased high school graduation rates (the country’s third highest now, he said). He deserves to crow about the jobless rate, even though many of the jobs are part-time.

There are newer, shinier objects to command the attention of a fickle public, but Perry has an appeal that Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Chris Christie don’t have. He’s approachable, charming and handsome in a “Mad Men” way. If there’s a diner, he’s working it; a party dinner, he’s speaking at it.

And he barely has been slowed by the Aug. 15 indictment on charges of abuse of power. He claims his decision to veto funds for the state’s Public Integrity Unit was justified by the refusal of the district attorney in charge to resign after a scandalously messy drunken-driving arrest. Across party lines, people found the charges partisan and overdone.

But just as it isn’t the heat that gets you, it’s the humidity, it isn’t the indictment that’s the problem, it’s the legal system cranking up to full speed against you. If Perry’s lawyers aren’t successful in getting the charges dropped, the wheels of justice will begin their slow grind and hamper any comeback just as the Texas governor was about to show he wasn’t all hat and no cattle.

• Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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