Texas Gov. Perry Retools Approach as He Weighs Presidential Bid

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By Colleen McCain Nelson and Nathan Koppel

Effort to Show Preparedness Comes After 2012 Missteps

BN-GD635_PERRY_M_20141223171751When Rick Perry jumped into the 2012 presidential race, he was overconfident and unprepared—and that’s an assessment from some of his supporters.

With the 2016 presidential field starting to take shape, the Texas governor and his advisers are offering blunt critiques of Mr. Perry’s past missteps in an effort to draw a contrast with what has become an unusually public preparation for a probable second bid.

The re-education of Rick Perry has included months of meetings with policy experts and a series of dinners with Republican donors aimed at showing them that he has learned from his mistakes.

Plenty of presidential candidates take a crash course on foreign policy and economic theory, but Mr. Perry has been particularly open about the process, addressing questions about how his first campaign went off track—most notably with a memory lapse in which he forgot a central element of his own policy platform during a televised debate—while pledging to step up his game.

“He’s been pretty plain-spoken that he wasn’t ready last time,” said Henry Barbour, a longtime friend and unofficial adviser to Mr. Perry. “He’s been very candid about it…and he’s not making any excuses.”

Mr. Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, said leading a large state is “a foundation, but it’s nowhere near enough.” He said in an interview that he had made a commitment to spend the past two years preparing himself for a possible White House bid. He said he was confident that voters would see a candidate who has made strides since his “Oops” moment in 2011.

“People have seen for the last two years that there is a substantially more versed and capable individual than they saw in 2011,” Mr. Perry said. “We’re a country of second chances. We’ve given people second chances, particularly on the Republican side of the field.”

While Mr. Perry is hoping voters will give him another opportunity to make a good impression, he faces challenges. Some donors who backed him four years ago already are committing to other candidates.

l.wsjA new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey found that only 19% of Americans said they could see themselves supporting Mr. Perry for president, while 52% said they couldn’t see themselves supporting him. Among Republicans, 35% said they were open to supporting Mr. Perry and 39% said they weren’t. Among all respondents, Mr. Perry’s marks were lower than those of six other possible GOP candidates.

Still, many of Mr. Perry’s advisers and financial supporters believe he can rehabilitate his image. They say he now is better-versed in policy and will be able to devote himself fully to the rigors of a presidential campaign once he leaves office next month. They acknowledge, though, that he must quickly and emphatically prove himself after stumbling across the national stage last time.

“He’ll have a smaller margin for error,” said Ray Sullivan, who served as chief of staff on Mr. Perry’s gubernatorial staff and as a communications director on his presidential campaign.

With that in mind, Mr. Perry has invited an array of experts to Austin for discussions about economic issues, health care, energy and the environment, the budget, entitlements and immigration.

Mr. Perry said his policy briefings have included a range of perspectives, among them those of Henry Kissinger and think tanks across the political spectrum.

“I do think it’s wise to have people even from the left sit down and have a thoughtful conversation,” Mr. Perry said.

Participants describe free-flowing conversations and an inquisitive Mr. Perry jumping in with questions. The sessions are casual—the governor wore a baseball cap and a hoodie to a recent policy discussion—and sometimes extend for hours.

“Basically, what he wanted to do was talk about everything,” said Kevin Hassett, the director of economic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former adviser to the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and John McCain . “It was really intriguing to me….He’s making a massive personal investment in federal economic policy and other issues, too.”

Mr. Hassett and many others who have made the trek to Austin haven’t committed to any presidential campaign, but several said they left impressed by Mr. Perry’s focus on the complexities of policy.

Mr. Perry, now donning studious-looking eyeglasses, has toned down some of his Texas swagger while underscoring that he will be a different candidate than in the 2012 cycle, should he run again. No announcement is expected until May or June, but the longtime Texas governor has been candid about his interest in the job.

Last week at Texas A&M University’s commencement, Mr. Perry joked that he has been working on his résumé.

“Under objective, I wrote: ‘Highly motivated professional seeking a position as chief executive of a large enterprise with good benefits and a really large personal jet,’ ” he said, adding that he was willing to travel and that his preferred destinations were Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Mr. Perry already has been spending time in some states that hold early presidential-nomination contests. Bryan Gould, a Republican Party official in New Hampshire, said Mr. Perry is doing more than in the 2012 race to lay groundwork in the state and has impressed GOP voters as having a better command of public policy.

“I see a different type of candidate,” said Mr. Gould, chairman of the Merrimack County Republican Committee.

Mr. Perry also has launched a donor-outreach effort, inviting hundreds of potential backers to Austin for dinners during the last several weeks. Other prospective candidates, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul , have Texas roots and could undercut Mr. Perry’s fundraising efforts.

Mr. Bush’s announcement last week that he would explore a White House bid served as a reminder of his family’s longstanding connections and vast fundraising network. Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, backed Mr. Perry’s 2012 bid but said he would raise money for Mr. Bush if the former Florida governor entered the 2016 race.

Some other members of Mr. Perry’s 2012 team are surveying the field. Matt Keelen, a GOP lobbyist who served as a Perry liaison on Capitol Hill, said he hasn’t made any decisions about signing on with a campaign, and he also has been impressed by Messrs. Paul and Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Other complicating factors for Mr. Perry include the fact that falling oil prices could put a dent in the Texas economy, possibly blunting his central argument touting the state’s job growth and economic strength.

What’s more, Mr. Perry could be faced with having to raise money while under a legal cloud. A grand jury in Austin indicted Mr. Perry in August on two felony counts for allegedly improperly attempting to pressure a local Democratic district attorney to leave office in 2013 after she was arrested for drunken driving. Mr. Perry has denied wrongdoing and has moved to dismiss the charges.

Mr. Barbour said he was confident that if Mr. Perry demonstrated a command of the issues and articulated a vision, he would be able to build momentum. He was a “bit arrogant” in his approach to the 2012 race, Mr. Barbour said, but voters love a good comeback story.

“He could have taken his marbles and gone home,” Mr. Barbour said. “He’s showing real humility, which I think people appreciate.”

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