ADDISON, Tex. — Four years after a disastrous first campaign for the White House, former Texas governor Rick Perry is poised to try again, and the contrast between then and now could hardly be greater.
Later Thursday morning, surrounded by military veterans and others in a patriotic display at an airplane hangar in this northern suburb of Dallas, Perry will announce his plans for 2016. There is little suspense about what he intends to say, according to advisers, but there are plenty of questions about whether greater preparation, good intentions and personal determination are enough to overcome the impressions he left behind after his first campaign.
When he first announced his candidacy for the White House in August 2011, he seemed almost the perfect candidate to compete seriously for the Republican nomination. He was a long-serving Texas governor in a party whose political base was in the South. He governed during a period of rapid growth and job creation in his native state. His anti-Washington instincts made him a tea party darling before there was a tea party. He had never lost an election.
Within weeks of his announcement, he was atop the polls, a major threat to the front-runner, Mitt Romney. But within weeks of achieving those lofty poll numbers, his candidacy was in a rapid descent, caused by his opponents’ attacks and his own maladroit performances in a series of early debates.
By the time he said “oops” on a debate stage in Michigan (he couldn’t remember all the agencies in Washington he planned to zero out as president), his candidacy was already history, as he has since admitted.
Now, as he prepares to announce his intentions, he is in an utterly different position — mired in low single digits in early polls, lightly regarded by many of his rivals, ignored or dismissed by many in the media and struggling for the kind of attention that a politician who served 14 years as chief executive of one of the nation’s most populous states might normally command.
He and his advisers believe that, if he was overestimated but ill-prepared four years ago, he is the opposite now, underestimated and in their estimation readier for the challenges that a presidential campaign presents. They say he likes nothing better than to be underestimated.
These advisers say a second campaign is not simply for redemption but rather because Perry believes he has something to offer his party and his country. But the former governor also is eager to prove all the doubters wrong — and those doubters are widespread.
Talk privately to strategists working for other candidates and they say he is a likable politician and one who could cause problems for some other candidates, but not one they see as a genuine threat to compete for the nomination.
Many share the view of Matthew Dowd, who helped former president George W. Bush win two elections to the White House and is now an independent analyst. Dowd sees an extremely difficult road ahead for Perry, owing to the impressions he made four years ago.
Asked about Perry’s prospects of becoming the GOP nominee, Dowd said: “I wouldn’t say impossible but very difficult. . . . The caricature has been made of him and it’s hard to get out of it.”
But Matt Rhoades, who was Romney’s campaign manager and who saw Perry as enough of a threat in the late summer of 2011 to move aggressively to bring him down, offered a dissenting view — suggesting that people are foolish to write off the former governor as an afterthought in the nomination battle.
“Gov. Perry has worked hard and done the right things to reposition himself for a run in 2016,” Rhoades, the founder of the conservative political action committee America Rising, said in an e-mail message. “I believe his candidacy will have a major impact on the primary and voters will give him a second chance.”
Perry long has been open about the mistakes of his first campaign, saying at one point last year that he was “a bit arrogant” in thinking he could suddenly jump into that race with minimal preparation. He also entered shortly after major surgery for a back ailment, and he was plagued by health problems for weeks that he said affected his candidacy.
In the intervening years, he has devoted himself to policy briefings, some foreign travel, trips to the early states — all in contrast to his previous campaign. Ray Sullivan, who served as one of Perry’s senior advisers during the governorship and the 2012 campaign but who is not formally a part of the 2016 campaign, said he expects voters will take a fresh look.
“When he entered in 2011, he gave himself and our campaign team six weeks to prepare,” Sullivan said. “He entered the race as a front-runner and had no ramp-up time and no room for really any error. He clearly learned from that experience and is a much better prepared, more informed campaigner for it.”
In his season of preparation, Perry has offered himself as a fiscal conservative with a sterling record of economic success during his time in office; a social conservative in good standing with the Republican right; and an optimistic leader who will provide muscular leadership whether in dealing with the issue of immigration by securing the U.S.-Mexico border or taking on Islamic State militants and other foreign-policy challenges.
Many of the themes he has been talking about this year were the same ones that were supposed to boost him four years ago. “We did a horrible job of telling that story last time,” said a senior Perry adviser who declined to be identified in order to speak openly. “We jumped in and thought everybody knew that story. The American people are going to see a very different Rick Perry.”
Like his many rivals, Perry has taken part in candidate forums, done quieter trips to Iowa and New Hampshire and counts on his retail skills as a candidate to win over voters who still have negative impressions from 2012. He has won applause and some plaudits for robust rhetorical skills, and some voters who have seen him over the past year say he is not the same candidate they remember from 2012.
So far, none of this has translated into significant support. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, released earlier this week, showed Perry at 2 percent nationally among registered Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, tied for 12th place among 16 candidates tested. In the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls, he is 10th on the list of candidates.
The polls may be only an early snapshot, certain to change with time, but they are important now because they will be used to determine who is invited to participate in the first two GOP debates later this summer. Perry is at risk of not being among the 10 candidates on the stage, though his advisers say they are confident he will be among the candidates in the opening debate in Cleveland on Aug. 6.
Perry’s path begins in Iowa, seen by other Republicans as the linchpin state where he must finish in at least the top three. He is far from that today, standing 11th at 3.3 percent in the most recent Bloomberg Politics-Des Moines Register Poll, though history says there could be considerable movement among the candidates there before next year’s caucuses.
His advisers also concede that, after his 2012 campaign, there is little margin of error. Some other candidates have had small stumbles this year but have not paid a significant price. Perry can ill afford any such missteps.
In that sense, Perry will be running, at least for the time being, against the image of his last candidacy as much or more than against any of the others in the field. Said one Perry loyalist: “He has to continue to grind it out — and do well.”