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Rick Perry inches closer to 2012 bid; has an eye on Florida

He's hosting a steady stream of Republican supplicants in Austin, his would-be organization is stepping up its outreach, and they're both talking to key early-state operatives and players.

Rick Perry is poised to shake up the GOP presidential race.

As it increasingly appears likely the Texas governor will launch a White House bid, Perry's ramp-up has become eerily reminiscent of the front porch strategy then-Gov. George W. Bush employed in 1999 at the governor's mansion ahead of his own presidential run – but at an accelerated pace.

This week alone, Perry is meeting in the Texas capital with a group of elected officials from Arkansas, then with another later in the week from Tennessee and Georgia. He's also hosting a group of national donors. Next week, he's set to sit down with a different set of bundlers.

"So many people want to do these, we've had to add additional dates," said Dave Carney, Perry's top strategist.

The governor already had some GOP national security officials down to Austin for a briefing and attended a dinner with a group of major Texas and out-of-state contributors.

"I got the feeling that there are a lot of people who are doing what we did — which is telling him he ought to do this," said Arkansas state Rep. David Sanders, who along with three other Arkansas Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Mark Darr, met for about 45 minutes with Perry on Monday in Austin.

The Texan has also traveled outside the state in preparation for a run. Last week, he did a five-city tour of California and had to move venues in two of them to accommodate larger crowds of potential donors. One of his hosts for the private sessions was investment icon and longtime GOP giver Charles Schwab. Perry also attended a Republican Governors Association meeting in Aspen, Colorado, over the weekend and, with two other governors, attended a small breakfast with donors at the home of uber-Republican Fred Malek, who remains uncommitted.

The governor is getting some help in Washington, too: Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), a freshman who was a top national GOP operative before winning election to the House, has been talking up Perry to other members of Congress and is in contact with the Texan's inner circle.

"People are very, very interested in somebody else," Griffin said of his conversations with colleagues.

Even before he decides – and he said in Aspen it would be in three to four weeks – Perry is casting a Texas-sized shadow over the GOP race. He's on the minds of Iowa activists, is rapidly moving up in polling and has President Obama's high command wondering if the candidate they've long-planned on facing, Mitt Romney, may yet face a serious threat.

Perry's swagger might ultimately be a detriment in a general election, but for now his Yell Leader charisma looks appealing to Republicans still looking for Mr. Right.

"He's Technicolor and the other guys are black-and-white," said one Republican who has met recently with Perry.

The Austin brain trust is already planning for a bid, moving aggressively to put a campaign organization in place.

Carney has reached out to an array of operatives in the first caucus and primary states.

In Iowa, he's touched base with Ruth Haus, a former Republican National Committee official who now co-owns a political media firm with her husband, Bob. Both are veteran caucus hands.

In South Carolina, Carney has contacted Walter Whetsell and Katon Dawson, both longtime Republican strategists who previously were backing Newt Gingrich.

And in Florida, the Perry forces are wooing Sally Bradshaw, a coveted Jeb Bush confidante who was previously planning to support Haley Barbour.

Carney is based in New Hampshire and, should Perry run, will keep a close eye on the Granite State operation.

"We're talking to [New Hampshire] people," he said by phone from his home office in Hancock, N.H. "Some folks were here today pitching."

The operatives in touch with the burgeoning Perry organization were cagey about their interactions, not wanting to discuss a campaign that, while likely, doesn't yet exist.

"I'm on my bicycle every morning at 5:30, going 14 miles, getting in shape," cracked Dawson.

One attendee at the donors' dinner in Austin last week described the gathering on the condition of anonymity.

A group of Texas and national contributors each got an hour-long briefing from Carney and Rob Johnson, who ran Perry's re-election last year and will likely reprise that role should the governor get in the presidential race. Then the two groups came together for dinner with Perry at a private club.

The governor focused his remarks on what the attendee called "the Texas economic story" — the state's job growth under Perry.

The out-of-state attendees hailed from California, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. Some had Texas ties — like Mary Ourisman, a U-T graduate who is now a Washington establishment pillar and was Bush 43's Ambassador to Barbados — but many were getting their first up-close look at Perry.

"I went in with no biases, but I must confess I like the guy," said the attendee. "I will likely [support him].

The Perry team has done due diligence since the gathering, as well, sending a thank you e-mail to those attended and asking to stay in touch.

Sanders, the Arkansas legislator, said he came away from his sit-down with Perry believing that the Texan will run "because he realizes what the country is up against."

He may also get in because it has become clear in recent weeks that the support is there for a campaign, if Perry wants one.

Take Arkansas, where Sanders has already got 20 state legislators indicating a willingness to support the Texan.

"We offered to raise money for him, travel to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and campaign — whatever he needs," Sanders said of the Monday meeting.

POLITICO and the St. Petersburg Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.

Rick Perry inches closer to 2012 bid; has an eye on Florida 07/26/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 26, 2011 11:53am]
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