NEW ORLEANS, La.–Republican activists have waited all week to see a front-running presidential candidate. When Texas Gov. Rick Perry took the stage Saturday, they may have finally gotten their glimpse.
In a 20-minute address to about 2,000 activists at the Republican Leadership Conference, Perry decried the Obama administration and even Republicans he blamed for “apologizing” while touting his own record with remarks that sounded conspicuously like a stump speech.
“This administration in Washington that’s in power now clearly believes that government is not only the answer to every need, but it’s the most qualified to make the most central decisions for every American in every area,” Perry said. He called Obama’s approach to the economy “an affront to every freedom-loving American and a threat to every private sector job in this country.”
“I stand before you today as a disciplined, conservative Texan, a committed Republican and a proud American, united with you in the desire to restore our nation and revive the American dream,” he said.
Though he has adamantly denied an interest in running for president for years, Perry’s attitude has changed in recent weeks. He has reportedly dispatched aides to Iowa to feel out the political situation in the home of the crucial first caucus. Now, his biggest supporters believe he is likely to enter the presidential race.
“I do think he’ll get in. And it won’t be because he wants to, it’ll be because he thinks he needs to,” said Bill Crocker, chairman of the Texas Republican Party. Crocker introduced Perry to members of the Republican National Committee at a luncheon in Dallas last month.
Perry won a difficult Republican primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in 2010 by contrasting his support for state’s rights with his opponent’s day job in Washington. His signature pitch to conservative activists is an appeal to the 10th Amendment guarantees of states rights, something that brought an expectant crowd to its feet Saturday. In doing so, he sure sounds like a candidate looking forward to a run for higher office.
“Our goal is to displace the entrenched powers in Washington, restore the rightful balance between the state and federal government,” Perry said.
Perry has used his party’s control of Texas’s legislature to advance a stridently conservative agenda he can use on the campaign trail. This year alone, Perry’s 11th in the governor’s mansion, he signed legislation to require plaintiffs who lose lawsuits against corporations to pay additional legal costs and a measure that requires voters to show identification when they show up at the ballot box — a proposal that earned him a standing ovation. The 2010 midterm elections, he said, were evidence that the GOP has a mandate for such aggressive legislation.
“We’ve got the wind at our back right now. Americans are waking up to the realities of their previous choices,” he said. “We must keep America moving back to preeminence because our values and conservative ideas are the world’s greatest hope.”
Most speakers at the Republican Leadership Conference this week have focused their assaults strictly on Obama and his economic policies. But Perry turned his fire on fellow Republicans who he accused of hiding from social issues under pressure from Democrats.
“When it comes to conservative social issues, it saddens me when sometimes my fellow Republicans duck and cover under pressure from the left,” he said. “Let’s speak with pride about our morals and our values and redouble our efforts to elect more conservative Republicans. Let’s stop this downward American spiral.”
At a conference that front-runners Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman avoided, Perry is the closest thing the 2,000 attendees have to a rock star. They treated him as such — when Perry wrapped up, the activists rang the rafters with chants of “Run, Rick, Run!”
Asked whether he will jump in the race, Monroe, La., resident Greta Jones smiled: “I have a sneaking suspicion he will.” Added her friend Carolyn Whitfield: “He’s got a lot of pressure to run.”