Gov. Rick Perry enjoys pounding the podium at tea party rallies and rails against Washington. He regales listeners about the 10th Amendment and states' rights.
"If you care about America, if you care about taking this country back, you find you a tea party. Get involved," Perry shouted to thousands who gathered in Tyler in East Texas to see him with conservative talk show host Glenn Beck in April.
But as Perry campaigns for a third full term, he may have to look for a tea party himself. While members of the movement say Perry is preferable to Democrat Bill White, many are focusing their energy on down-ballot races, not the top-of-the-ticket contest.
After all, Perry's record after 10 years as governor shows that he wields government power comfortably. And after 25 years in public life, he's hardly an outsider.
He advocated seizing land from private owners to make way for the now-defunct Trans-Texas Corridor toll road and he ordered school age girls in Texas to be vaccinated against the HPV virus -- an order that the Legislature overrode. He accepted stimulus money from Washington to balance the state budget. State agencies under his control seized more than 400 children from a polygamist compound in West Texas where men were suspected of marrying underage girls; eventually, many were returned to their parents. He endorsed moderate Rudolph Giuliani for president in early 2008, then John McCain.
"I can't say the tea party support for Rick Perry is very strong, but the opposition to Bill White is intense," said Don Zimmerman, a state Republican executive committee member who is active in tea party groups around Austin. "I'm supporting Rick Perry, but ... I'm working more on the down-ballot races."
Many tea party activists have remained silent on the gubernatorial contest, instead focusing on congressional and statehouse races in the Nov. 2 election, said Greg Holloway, a board member for the Austin Tea Party Patriots. Those voters, he said, realize the importance of the Legislature's decisions on issues such as voter identification, immigration and health care.
Tea party voters who have an anti-incumbent bias and supported maverick candidate Debra Medina in the GOP primary may turn away from Perry and to Libertarian Kathie Glass or may not vote, Holloway predicted.
"They don't see a strong enough candidate in any case running for governor," he said.
Perry was quick to sense the power of the tea party movement in early 2009, enthusiastically denouncing President Barack Obama and the Democrats for federal stimulus spending -- even as he accepted the cash.
And he dismisses any criticism of him by tea party activists as a squabble within a close family.
"I suspect if you went to a family reunion you could find some people that don't agree with everything that I have done, having spent 10 years as governor," Perry told The Associated Press.
"I'm supported by the tea party," he said. "Not only do I go to tea party events, I'm highly complimentary of them. "
White has spoken at several tea party forums, including one recently in Rowlett near Dallas where he and Glass showed up but Perry did not. White's spokeswoman, Katy Bacon, said White is reaching out to Texans of all political backgrounds.
Nationally, Perry is not alone in his hybrid appeal to tea party activists.
Wisconsin Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker has served in public office for 17 years, since he was 25. He's been endorsed by the tea party group Fox Valley Initiative and has appeared at tea party rallies across the state.
In Maine, GOP gubernatorial nominee Paul LePage is the frontrunner and the choice of tea partiers. But LePage and his campaign are careful not to tie themselves to the movement, and tea partiers there are clear that they do not endorse.
Former GOP Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is running for U.S. Senate, is a favorite of tea partiers but is an insider, too, a Jeb Bush protege. He's been defending spending by the Legislature while he was speaker.
In Texas, Medina had been a tea party favorite but lost steam in the primary when she said there were "some very good arguments" that the U.S. was involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. She later tried to back away from the statement. Medina questions whether Perry practices fiscal restraint.
"I'm still optimistic that Governor Perry will show some conservative policy direction," she said.
Dallas Tea Party steering committee member Phillip Dennis noted that, like many other tea party groups, his organization doesn't endorse candidates. Dennis said he believes a large number of tea party voters support Perry, but that he's pushing hard for voter turnout in down-ballot races.
Pete and Aggie Koch, a husband and wife tea party volunteer team with the North Houston Tea Party, said they definitely will vote for Perry, in large part because they don't agree with White.
Pete Koch, who helps to organize get-out-the vote tea party events attended by thousands at a horse race track, said he likes Perry's stance on limited government. He said Perry's Trans-Texas Corridor toll road network is a sore subject with many tea party voters and may be the one issue that turns some of them against him.
"Governor Perry's not perfect, but he's OK by me," Aggie Koch said.
Associated Press writers Glenn Adams in Augusta, Maine; Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.; and Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.