WASHINGTON – Two high-profile Texas Republicans who are testing the 2016 presidential waters – Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry – were in Washington Thursday speaking at virtually the same time, but to very different audiences.
Cruz was reinforcing his bona fides and Perry was looking to refurbish his.
Cruz was a marquee speaker at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference, a gathering of the party’s most conservative wing, which represents the freshman senator’s most enthusiastic supporters.
Perry spoke to a well-attended Christian Science Monitor luncheon of journalists, continuing his “mea culpa” media tour of taking blame for his dismal performance during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.
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Cruz gave a stem-winder at the Omni Shoreham Hotel focused on religious freedom, reinforcing his appeal to the party’s base. Perry had been invited to speak at the conference but declined because of a scheduling conflict, organizers said.
Across town, however, the Texas governor, who had never spoken to the Monitor’s periodic newsmaker events during his nearly 14 years as governor, offered some reflective reasons for a second run at the White House.
“I’m glad I ran in 2012,” said Perry, “as frustrating, as painful and as humbling as that experience was.”
The governor said he learned that winning the governorship three times does not prepare a candidate for the intense scrutiny of a presidential campaign.
“I have focused on being substantially better prepared,” he said.
In 2012, Perry famously stumbled in a presidential debate, saying “Oops,” when he could not remember the three federal agencies he had pledged to abolish if he was elected. But the biggest factor that Perry is now facing, besides the memory of his failed campaign, is the new face in town, and from his own state.
“Cruz has the advantage, no doubt,” said Austin political consultant Bill Miller, who advises both Republicans and Democrats. “Perry talks to the base, they love him, but their ardor has cooled. They like the pretty new girl.”
And the political crush, at least among the GOP’s more conservative voters, is currently on Cruz, who won a Senate seat in his first try at elected office as a tea party favorite in 2012. At the Texas Republican state convention in Fort Worth in early June, Perry received an enthusiastic reception but was completely eclipsed by Cruz, whose rock star status easily won the presidential straw poll, with 43.4 percent in a field of 14.
Perry came in fourth, with 11.7 percent.
The Faith and Freedom conference is not holding a straw poll, although many Republicans eyeing the 2016 presidential contest are scheduled to speak, including Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Asked at the Monitor luncheon about Texas polls that show him trailing Cruz, Perry said that he had started out 30 points behind Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 governor’s race.
“Polls are polls. They’re a snapshot,” he said. “I do not pay a lot of attention to polls” so far from an election.
But others do.
“There is no question which Texas officeholder is laps ahead in the Olympic swimming pool,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Perry looks like the past and Cruz the future. Maybe Perry isn’t worn out, but after 14 years as governor and a disastrous bid for president in 2012, Perry seems like a syndicated rerun.”
Texas GOP chairman Stephen Munisteri, a veteran of 10 presidential campaigns, said he had never seen anything like Cruz’s meteoric rise.
“You’ve got to throw out the rules when you talk about Sen. Cruz,” said Munisteri. “I’ve never seen a senator in the first few months in office get the national spotlight.”
To Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, it has come down to Cruz’s consistent anti-government, anti-President Barack Obama stance, exemplified by his 21-hour speech against the Affordable Care Act last year.
“Ted Cruz’s rise reflects the mood of the Texas Republican Party,” said Henson. “Ted Cruz is the pre-eminent choice among Texas Republicans.”
And where does that leave Perry?
Ted Delisi, a former longtime Perry aide who was the national field director in his 2012 campaign, is not committed to either Texan in what he calls the “pre-campaign.”
“The field is very fluid,” he said. “The only people who are really, really following it are the activists – and the press.”