Omar Villafranca, NBCDFW.com
Gov. Rick Perry tells reporters in Austin that his wife is encouraging him to "step out of his comfort zone" and run for president.
In spite of his thundering speeches against big government, Gov. Rick Perry has a troubled relationship with the tea party, a rift increasingly obvious as he gets closer to a presidential bid.
Tea party groups from New Hampshire to Texas are collaborating to criticize Perry's record on immigration, public health and spending and his former affiliation with the Democratic Party.
"It's real easy to walk into church on Sunday morning and sing from the hymnal. I saw a guy that talked like a tea party candidate but didn't govern like one," said Debra Medina, a Texas tea party activist who challenged Perry in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary. "I still don't think he governs like the conservative he professes to be."
Texas conservatives recently shared material on Perry's record with the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, which dedicated a section of its website to the Texas governor. The coalition offers links to negative media coverage and videos about the man who it says "was Al Gore's Democrat chairman" in 1988. Perry switched to the Republican Party in 1989, around the same time as other conservative Democrats.
The organization also distributed a series of emails to supporters, including one obtained by The Associated Press warning, "We should be aware there is more to him than meets the eye."
The attacks are quietly promoted by other Republican presidential contenders, who view Perry as a growing threat as he inches closer to a late entrance into the Republican presidential primary. Many of the candidates are competing for the hearts of tea party activists who have generated passion, campaign cash and armies of volunteers from GOP voters nationwide.
A key Perry strategist dismissed the tea party criticism as isolated to a handful of conservative groups in a fragmented movement.
"There's no candidate running on either side of the aisle that has his record and relationship with tea party members," said David Carney. "But the tea party is not one monolithic group."
Carney concedes that Perry has work to do in early voting states like New Hampshire.
"We have reached out to some members of the tea party leadership. But until we get the campaign going, if we have a campaign, and they have an opportunity to talk to the governor, they're not going to know who he is and they're going to be somewhat skeptical," he said.
They're particularly skeptical about Perry's record on immigration, an issue that resonates with the Granite State's tea party movement.
As governor, Perry signed a law making Texas the first state to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and he blasted a proposed border fence as "idiocy." Texas tea party groups sent Perry an open letter this year expressing disappointment over his failure to get a bill passed that would have outlawed "sanctuary cities," municipalities that protect illegal immigrants.
Texas governors, including Perry and his predecessor, George W. Bush, walk a fine line when it comes to immigration. The state's powerful business lobby, which is reliably Republican, back many immigration rights laws and the state population is more than one-third Hispanic. Landowners along the Texas-Mexico border had complained about the border fence interfering with ranching.
Perry also said that Arizona's controversial immigration law "would not be the right direction for Texas," although he would later support a friend-of-the-court brief defending Arizona's right to pass its own laws in accordance with the 10th Amendment.
"That's a pretty big knock against him," said Jerry DeLemus, chairman of the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC, when notified of some of Perry's immigration policies.
Conservative activists also have attacked Perry's support for mandatory HPV vaccines for sixth-grade girls and the seizure of private property for a now-defunct trans-state toll road, among other things.
Still, Perry enjoys substantial support from some tea party groups, who say Perry's conservative credentials are strong, even if not perfect.
"I don't think there's a purity test for who is tea party and who isn't tea party," said Ryan Hecker, a member of the Houston Tea Party Society and organizer of the group Contract from America. "Being an executive involves a lot of tough decisions. At times, some tea party people would have liked him to be more conservative. But, generally speaking, he has an excellent record, a far better record than other candidates in the race."
Perry told reporters in Austin on Tuesday that his wife, Anita, was encouraging a presidential run.
"My wife was talking to me and saying, 'Listen, get out of your comfort zone. Yeah, being governor of Texas is a great job, but sometimes you're called to step into the fray,"' he said.
Hecker, who has not yet decided whom he will support, said tea party folks in Texas appreciate Perry's early embrace of the nascent group while others considered it fringe. Indeed, Perry was among the first statewide officials in Texas to embrace the movement and appear at tea party rallies where he demanded Washington retreat from state affairs.
That generated some good will that still exists in some camps.
The conservative policy group, New Hampshire Cornerstone, will feature Perry as the keynote speaker during its annual dinner in October.
"Obviously we invited him because we've liked the job he's done in Texas," Cornerstone Executive Director, Kevin Smith, said when asked about the attacks by the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition. "I've seen some of those emails. My impression is that when I've dug deeper, I've found the folks sending them are on board with another candidate."
Austin Tea Party activist Don Zimmerman, like many tea party activists in Texas and New Hampshire, prefer Texas Rep. Ron Paul in his third presidential bid.
Paul, Zimmerman said, is the true tea party favorite.
"Ron Paul pretty much invented the national tea party," said Zimmerman, a member of the Texas State Republican Executive Committee. "It's really unfair for these other candidates to come along and claim to be the tea party favorite. It's almost like it's starting to lose its meaning."