Texas Governor Rick Perry addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Marriott Wardman Park February 11, 2011 in Washington, DC. A dozen potential Republican presidential hopefuls are set to address CPAC, the biggest gathering of conservative activists in the country.
Stuck at home managing a special session of the Texas Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry couldn't capitalize on Newt Gingrich's campaign implosion with a quick move into the GOP presidential field even if he wanted.
It doesn't matter, said several veteran fundraisers who helped former President George W. Bush break records as he vaulted from Texas to the White House.
They say there's still plenty of time for a candidate to get in the race even if he hasn't hired a staff, raised a dollar or made an official campaign trip to Iowa or New Hampshire. In fact, they argue, it could become an advantage for Perry, a conservative who has never lost an election.
"Getting in early gives you more time to spend money, more time to make mistakes, you don't understand the field, who you're running against," said Anne Dunsmore, a fundraiser who has worked for Bush, Rudy Giuliani and other Republican candidates.
Perry stirred speculation two weeks ago with an off-the-cuff remark -- "I'm going to think about it" -- and the buzz has only grown as two of Perry's most trusted advisers fled from Gingrich's presidential campaign in a wave of resignations.
Rob Johnson, who helped Perry mount a come-from-behind victory to beat U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison by more than 20 percentage points in the GOP governor's primary, left Perry's office earlier this year to be Gingrich's campaign manager. Longtime political advisor Dave Carney had remained working for the governor while also serving on Gingrich's staff.
It had always seemed unlikely that Perry would launch any campaign without the two at his side.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said Friday that Perry continued to think about getting in the race but remained focused on the Legislature and the Gingrich defections have no impact on his decision. Miner said Perry wasn't available for comment, and that he did not know if Johnson would immediately return to the governor's staff. Messages left with both were not returned Friday.
The special session that started last month, forced by a Democratic filibuster over funding for public education, could keep Perry cooped up at the Texas Capitol through June 29.
But Sig Rogich, one of Bush's "Rangers" who collected more than $200,000 for his campaigns, argued that Perry's work in Austin shouldn't be seen as a disadvantage if Perry decided to get in the race.
"Maybe today -- more than I've seen in recent memory -- coming from the back of the pack might be a real advantage," Rogich said.
Perry has $2.7 million left in his state campaign account from his 2010 reelection, according to his most recent campaign finance report. He won't be able to use that money for a presidential bid, since federal law prohibits state money from being transferred to a federal account. But the figure shows that Perry is an adept fundraiser. It's a skill he's honed through years of campaigning for statewide office in Texas and, as chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, one he's polished nationally.
"He comes from the best fundraising state, at least for Republicans, in the Unites States. And that's coming from a Romney supporter," said Wayne Berman, a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. who also helped Bush break fundraising records. "It's enough to start."
Perry isn't raising money now. But he's not spending it either. The cash "burn rate" for campaigns can be staggering, with expenses for salaries, benefits, travel, media, polling, research and fundraising events. Even if candidates have that money to spend in the early months, there's no guarantee that it will continue to flow.
Pat Oxford, another Bush supporter and Houston law partner of Giuliani who worked as a campaign chairman for Hutchison, said the fact the field remains unsettled has also extended the window for Perry to enter the race. Oxford is still waiting for the former New York mayor to decide on whether to jump in, but he'd "certainly consider" supporting Perry, too.
"I think Governor Perry has one of the best political instincts of any candidate I've ever known, so I would be very hesitant to criticize his political sense of what he needs to do," Oxford said. "He's not losing much by staying out."