After clobbering Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the March Republican primaries, Gov. Rick Perry has been steadily raising his national profile, fueling speculation that he is quietly building a campaign for the White House in 2012.
Perry still has to beat Democrat Bill White in November, so the speculation only goes so far. But less than a week after grabbing headlines at a Republican conference in New Orleans that came off like a 2012 candidates' beauty pageant, Perry found himself posing for pictures Thursday for next week's edition of Newsweek.
"I want to make you look good . . . let's see that handsome smile," photographer Matthew Mahon told Perry, whose rugged Marlboro-man looks and legendary swagger have helped make him a Texas political icon. Those traits, along with his penchant for bashing the Obama administration at every opportunity, have now made him a Tea Party darling with a national following.
"I think everybody assumes he has an interest in running for national office because if he were just interested in Texas, he'd only be talking about Texas," said Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "One rule of thumb is that the more a politician attacks Washington, the more sure you can be that that politician wants to move there."
Perry, 60, insists he's not a Beltway kind of guy, dramatically remarking in a recent televised debate that he plans to spend the next four years in Austin if "the good Lord" sees fit to let him live that long.
Still, Perry continues to get, and seek, national attention. It came in spades last week when the governor delivered a combative speech at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, where former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and other potential 2012 candidates addressed GOP activists.
Though Palin got top billing, it was Perry who gave them the red meat they wanted. He started out with the sheepish disclosure that he would be inflicting a little pro-Texas, chamber-of-commerce talk on the crowd. Instead, he mostly talked about how Washington was out of step with the American heartland, and how only a return to bedrock Republican principles will save his party.
He also delivered a not-so-subtle slap at his predecessor, George W. Bush, the last and only Texas governor who went to the White House. He said Republicans lost their way right around the time Bush won the presidency and "we elected men and women with an R behind their names, and we couldn't tell whether they were Republicans or Democrats."
But Perry also tore a page out of the Bush playbook by hammering robotically on four simple themes -- in Perry's case it's regulatory restraint, lawsuit curbs, low taxes and school accountability.
"That's it!" he declared. "Then get out of the way."
It's a slightly more muscular version of Bush's mantra that government "ought to do a few things and do them well and that government should not try to be all things to all people."
White's campaign has stepped up its criticism of Perry's national meanderings, saying it proves the Democrat is focused on Texas while Perry "focuses on his political career." As analyst Pitney sees it, Perry's no-holds-barred conservatism is playing well with Tea Party adherents and the Republican rank-and-file. But he said the governor could leave himself open to being labeled as an extremist in a general election contest with Obama. Perry routinely dismisses talk of any interest in the White House, but he doesn't deny he wants people outside of Texas to take a look at him and his state.
"I think every day we do something to raise, not necessarily our profile, but to raise interesting issues that people across the country I hope will look to Texas and say, 'you know what, we want to be more like Texas,"' Perry recently told The Associated Press.
During his photo shoot for Newsweek, the governor attracted a small crowd on the ninth floor of an office building that provides a breathtaking view of the Texas State Capitol. To ensure the appropriate localized backdrop, the magazine taped a small Texas flag to the wall behind Perry -- and then had him alternately sit, stand, go out on the balcony and hike his pants up a bit to reveal his famous Texas footwear.
"Give 'em a little leg?" Perry said obligingly. No one was shocked to see ostrich-skin boots emblazoned with a canon and the words "Come and Take It," a Texas revolutionary symbol that Perry and conservative activists now brandish tauntingly at their rivals.
The governor then sat for an interview with Texas journalist Evan Smith, writing for Newsweek, before heading off to Fort Worth to promote a NASCAR race this weekend. Perry's campaign coughed up $225,000 to sponsor driver Bobby Labonte's Chevrolet Impala. It's being broadcast nationally on the Fox network.