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Role of underdog seems to suit Texas governor

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2011, file photo Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Red State Gathering in Charleston, S.C., where he announced his run for president in 2012. Perry has gone from presidential front-runner to underdog in a flash, yet he acts as though he has nothing to lose. Perhaps he's used to being counted out, thought he hasn't lost an election in his 26 years in public office. Or perhaps he never expected to be where he is today: A farm kid who became the longest-serving governor of Texas, who sill has a shot at winning the Republican nomination. FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2011, file photo Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Red State Gathering in Charleston, S.C., where he announced his run for president in 2012. Perry has gone from presidential front-runner to underdog in a flash, yet he acts as though he has nothing to lose. Perhaps he's used to being counted out, thought he hasn't lost an election in his 26 years in public office. Or perhaps he never expected to be where he is today: A farm kid who became the longest-serving governor of Texas, who sill has a shot at winning the Republican nomination. (AP Photo/Alice Keeney, File)
By Pauline Arrillaga
AP National Writer / November 19, 2011

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LAS VEGAS—Rick Perry is sitting comfortably on a plush sofa in a hotel far from the strip that put the sin in "Sin City."

It's the day after another presidential debate, and if the flat-screen in front of him were on, he'd hear plenty of appraisals of whether a new fiery approach helped his pursuit of the highest office in the land or hurt him more.

Instead, he's talking about his boyhood in Texas, his time in the Air Force and a wiener dog named Lucy.

He is, here in suite 6118 of the Red Rock resort, relaxed and confident -- not the man Americans have seen on TV these past months, the orator whose flubs became the stuff of late-night comics.

He reminisces about playing piano as a child -- "piana," he pronounces it in a sharp twang -- before falling while unloading horses and breaking his arm.

He speaks of a once-myopic world view that was shaped by rural Texas before he joined the military and journeyed to foreign lands.

When asked about the tie he's wearing -- a red number dotted with tiny dachshunds clad in pink sweaters -- he gets his cellphone and shows off a picture of the family pooch.

He's gone from presidential front-runner to underdog in a flash, yet throughout he's acted as if he has nothing to lose.

Maybe it's because he's used to being counted out -- so much so that longtime Texas journalist R.G. Ratcliffe (whose blog is called "Rick PerrySphere") has called him "the forever underestimated candidate."

Maybe it's because despite what polls or pundits or even the public may say, Perry has shown he can face any opponent and win. He hasn't lost an election in his 26 years in public office.

Or maybe it's because he never really expected to be where he is today. He's ad farm kid who went on to become the longest-serving governor of Texas and has a shot at winning the Republican nomination for president.

"I mean, I'm a boy from Paint Creek, Texas," he says, leaning forward, his eyes gleaming with intensity.

Yes, underdog seems to suit him just fine.

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They call it the Big Empty for a reason, that quiet slice of rolling plains in north-central Texas where Perry was born and raised. It's a place of farms but few people, characterized by hard work and close families, football and faith.

It's the kind of place that shapes a boy but makes a man want more, out of determination or boredom or, in Perry's case, a bit of both.

Ask those who know Perry well what not only drives him but defines him, and all fingers point to Paint Creek.

He lived there as a child and an adult, bookends of his years before politics. For Perry the boy, he would later write, it was "paradise."

"I had thousands of acres to explore, a dog I called my own, and a Shetland pony." He did what boys do without the diversions of city life: School, chores, church, Boy Scouts and football (Perry played quarterback on a six-man team).

But "paradise," in reality, was arduous. Perry's father was a dryland cotton farmer whose livelihood depended upon Mother Nature's mood. The Perrys didn't have much in the way of money, especially early on. Their first house didn't even have indoor plumbing.

"You're going to an outhouse until your 5 years old? That tells you everything you need to know," says Bill Miller, a Texas political consultant who has known Perry some 15 years.

"This is a guy that grew up poor and looked at every opportunity as, `I'd better grab it.' If you put a plate of food in front of a hungry person, they get after it," says Miller. "The metaphor is: He's been hungry, and he looks at opportunity as something he needs to grab."

In Paint Creek, Perry found men to emulate, who taught him about honor and service. His beloved scoutmaster was a Texas A&M graduate, an ex-Army officer and served on the Paint Creek school board. Perry would follow in his footsteps to the same college and his own stint in the military before turning to politics.

Back home, he also found love with a girl named Anita. As children, they sat next to each other at a piano recital. As teenagers, they went on their first date to a football game. Over time, they would fall in love. Many years later, in 1982, they would marry. "His smile," says Anita Thigpen Perry, "won my heart."

More than anything, Perry found himself in Paint Creek -- when, at 27 years old, he returned home from traveling the world as an Air Force pilot to work with his dad on the farm.

He'd been gone almost a decade, spending four years at Texas A&M University, a conservative school deeply rooted in tradition and focused on the military and agriculture.

Perry served in the Corps of Cadets, the student military organization where freshman with scratched belt buckles were ordered to drop and do pushups. He was also one of five "yell leaders" -- chosen by a vote of the entire student body -- who guided Aggie fans in spirit yells during athletics events.

Perry wanted to be a veterinarian, but his grades weren't up to snuff, so he joined the Air Force after graduation and flew C-130 tactical planes to South America and Saudi Arabia. It was the first time he'd really experienced life outside of his sheltered existence.

In 1977, once his commission was up and Perry was still trying to figure out what to do with his life, it made returning home to Paint Creek that much harder.

Of that time, Perry writes in his book "On My Honor," "Dad still thought I was there to do chores. I reminded him that I had just finished commanding a multimillion-dollar piece of government equipment. ... He reminded me that the chores still needed tending to."

It happened to also be a drought period, and so Perry interviewed for a job as a pilot at Southwest Airlines. When the rains finally came, Perry passed on the pilot's job and stayed on, working with his father for several more years. Then boredom and happenstance -- the retirement of the state representative in his rural district -- drove him to a new calling.

The men of Perry's family had long served in office. His great-great-grandfather was a county judge; his great-grandfather and father were county commissioners.

Public service, Perry said, "was a normal everyday affair for me." But he was also craving something more than farm life.

"I went from pedestrian to rather fast back to pedestrian," Perry said. "The politics just kind of occurred. I tell people: God, he had plans for me."

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Depending on whom you ask, Perry's success as a politician is due to great timing, even better luck or his savvy and skill as a candidate who benefits from a loyal team of strategists. While not a practiced debater, he excels at the type of meet-and-greet campaigning that can win voters over.

Then there are those, including the Democrat who lost to Perry in the last Texas gubernatorial election, who prefer to go with all of the above.

"It's a mix of luck and the fact that he's a thoroughly professional politician," says former Houston mayor Bill White. "This is the life he knows."

From 1985, when Perry took office as a 34-year-old state legislator, it has been his life. His timing has been spot on, too.

There was his switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in 1989. The move suited Perry. He already was a conservative Democrat, known for advocating budget cuts in the Texas House.

There was a growing sense of how hard it would become for Democrats to win statewide office in Texas as the state shifted from blue to red. That was a trend Perry helped lead when he was elected agriculture commissioner in 1990.

GOP consultant Reggie Bashur remembers even those in Republican circles thinking Perry didn't stand much of a chance. He was up against a high-profile Democrat, Jim Hightower.

But here's where both timing and strategy come into play: Farmers were angry at Hightower over new pesticide rules, and both parties were looking for a "real farmer" to run against him. They found one in Perry, whose team ran a television ad showing Perry in jeans, hat and boots on horseback.

"I was impressed with his focus, his tenacity, his commitment," says Bashur.

Adds Royal Masset, ex-political director of the Texas Republican Party: "He really looked like someone who would be a leader ... like Winston Churchill meets the Marlboro Man."

By 1998, when Perry won a nail-biter to become Texas' first Republican lieutenant governor, the state's transition from blue to red was complete. With George W. Bush leading the way -- and campaigning hard for Perry as his No. 2 in case Bush decided to run for president -- Republicans made history and won every statewide race on the ballot that year.

Two years later, Perry found himself in the state's top job when Bush headed to Washington. He's won re-election three times since, including a six-way race in 2006 in which Perry won with 39 percent of the vote.

In what was initially seen as one of his toughest challenges, Perry easily defeated U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in their 2010 primary and went on to beat White in the general election. Early polls showed Perry trailing Hutchinson. Some people, including Masset, were suggesting his time as governor was done.

But Perry fought back. He attended tea party rallies, talked up states' rights, talked down Washington "insiders" and drew loads of publicity over his now infamous comment about Texas secession. ("If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people ... who knows what might come out of that?")

In the words of Paul Burka, a writer for Texas Monthly magazine, Perry has both been "sailing with the wind for years" as a conservative in a Republican state and "has a radar sense of political trends."

Given that, the timing would once again seem perfect for Perry. The topic of the day is jobs, and Perry is America's self-proclaimed "jobs governor," having presided over a state with 45 percent of the nation's job growth since June 2009, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The electoral winds may again be shifting back to the right.

In some ways it makes sense that he entered the Republican presidential race and shot straight to the top. But can the forever underestimated candidate find his way back there?

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The morning after the Las Vegas debate, Perry jogged onto the stage at the Venetian Showroom to speak to a gathering of western Republicans.

Standing behind a podium, glancing at his notes, he gave a keynote that hit on his campaign themes: the job creation record of Texas, his "authentic" conservatism, energy policy as a way to improve the economy.

His delivery was full of fist pumps and calls to "Let's do it! Let's roll!" The Aggie yell leader is still alive in the 61-year-old campaigner.

But when the cheering stops, the carping begins.

First came the kind of verbal barbs that folks in Texas are used to but may not fly on a national scene, including his suggestion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be committing a "treasonous" act if he decided to "print more money to boost the economy" and that, if he did, "we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas."

Republicans and Democrats alike shot back with a barb of their own: "unpresidential."

Then came the faltering debate performances, and the ensuing skewering by pundits on the left and the right.

Old policy decisions have come back to haunt him, most notably an order requiring Texas girls to be vaccinated against a virus that can cause cervical cancer. (The Texas Legislature overturned the decree.)

Conservatives' eyebrows went up over a Texas policy allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates, not to mention Perry's characterization of those who oppose such education benefits as "heartless."

He's taken heat for calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme," for questioning the science behind global warming, for not acting sooner to remove a rock painted with a racially offensive name from the Texas hunting camp his family once leased, and for failing to repudiate a Dallas minister and supporter who called Mormonism a cult.

Where does all of this leave him?

"Where he has always been," says Perry aide Ray Sullivan. "Being underestimated has its advantages. ... He is confident and likes a challenge. And, occasionally, he likes a fight."

Perry doesn't want to waste time looking back at what's maybe gone wrong. It's not his way, says Miller, the Austin consultant. "He does not move sideways and he certainly doesn't move backward. He moves forward. And he tends to move forward fast."

As Perry points out, he has money in the bank, and a great story to tell.

As for whether that will be enough to carry the boy from Paint Creek to the Republican nomination and, even, beyond?

"I don't know," he says. "We'll find out."