By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, Perry still has the gestures and body language of the handsome country bumpkin who was elected a yell leader at Texas A&M in 1970. A&M, newly coed, was still more military academy than college when Perry, a poor ranch boy from a flyspeck town 180 miles west of Dallas, showed up in 1968 wearing shirts, pants, and underwear sewn by his seamstress mother.
Yell leaders then, as now, were more like orchestra conductors than cheerleaders, directing the A&M bleachers at football games in "army yells" communicated by coded hand signals. It's an elective post, a popularity contest that garners twice the voter turnout as the school's election for student body president.
Watch Perry's appearance on The Daily Show from last November, and you'll see him wrest the audience away from host Jon Stewart at key moments, with sly grins sidelong to the peanut gallery and, yes, even a hand signal or two. The man does know crowds.
"What he has more than anything else is street smarts," says Colbert, the education consultant and former legislator. "What he has is an ability to be able to judge people for what it is that's important to them. How can I make them my friend? In all sorts of ways that's a very, very important skill to have, and if you happen to be in politics it's one of the most vital skills you can have."
He's particularly adept at picking up on and hooking into important underlying themes in public sentiment long before other politicians get a clue, Colbert says.
"He sees it. He runs in front of it, and regardless of whatever his underlying stuff may be, he will do what he needs to do to stay on top of that wave rather than have the wave roll over him and crush him," Colbert says. "He's a good surfer."
To these personal gifts another important asset must be added: a campaign staff so brilliant it's already being studied by political scientists across the country. In his book excerpt, "Rick Perry and His Eggheads," journalist Sasha Issenberg explains how the Perry gubernatorial campaign in 2010 allied with a team of political scientists from Yale, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Maryland.
And then there's the pure weirdness of Texas, and Perry's ability to exploit it. Stanford says Perry has whipped a succession of candidates who may have been smarter than he was about the world because Perry was smarter than they were about Texas.
"Rick Perry always knew that to be Texas governor, first in the voters' eyes you had to be Texas," Stanford says. "He did an ad campaign, 'I'm proud of Texas, how about you?' If you're attacking Rick Perry, you're attacking Texas. He always sets it up that way."
Perhaps the last question, then, is whether being proud of Texas can get Perry elected president.