CARL LEUBSDORF: Where can Rick Perry take his "Gridiron' role?

By Carl Leubsdorf

Rick Perry’s appearance as the Republican speaker at Washington’s annual Gridiron dinner gave the Texas governor an opportunity to start rehabilitating his national image, and he made the most of it with a hilarious speech poking fun at himself and his fellow GOP candidates.
“The weakest Republican field in history – and they kicked my butt,” he said. Or this one on Mitt Romney: “I like Mitt Romney as much as one really good-looking man can like a really good-looking man and not break Texas law.”
Afterward, the press and political notices were glowing. “Perry steals the show at the Gridiron dinner,” according to the Washington Post headline. “I think he did himself some good tonight,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said afterward.
But Perry can get only so far by displaying the naturally friendly personality and genuine sense of humor that often did not come through in his 2012 campaign (I was one of the Gridiron officers who helped pick Perry for this slot, and word was that his speech benefited from the help of noted GOP wordsmith Landon Parvin.).
What really sunk Perry’s presidential bid was his lack of substantive knowledge about national and international issues, producing a series of factual gaffes along the campaign trail and a series of uncertain or incorrect responses in televised debates, climaxed by his infamous inability to recall the Cabinet departments he wished to scrap.
If Perry is serious about mounting a 2016 presidential bid – he noted last month that he has only “suspended” his 2012 campaign, not ended it – he’ll need to spend considerable time on the kind of study with knowledgeable experts that prepared George W. Bush for his 2000 presidential bid.
Once Perry has spent some time learning about the complex issues with which presidential candidates have to cope, he’d be wise to make appearances in venues such as the Sunday news shows that would enable him to show that he’s changing.
Reporters and other knowledgeable observers can always tell when a prospective candidate is ready for prime time. I recall attending a press session with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee that made it evident he would not run in 2012, even though he said he hadn’t decided.
Other factors also will help to determine if Perry can find more success in a second presidential bid than the first time. For one thing, a Republican presidential victory this November would probably mean no GOP contest in 2016.
But if President Barack Obama is re-elected, the next GOP race will probably start quickly. Perry would need to win re-election in 2014 and also spend time helping GOP candidates, sticking mainly to set speeches until he and his advisers felt comfortable about his substantive knowledge.
Perhaps his biggest potential problem is that a wide open 2016 Republican race would almost certainly attract a stronger GOP field than sought the presidency this year. It could include either former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marc Rubio from Florida; some Republican governors from major industrial states such as New Jersey’s Chris Christie (assuming they survive re-election bids); some candidates from Congress such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin or Sens. John Thune of South Dakota and Rand Paul of Kentucky; and other 2012 also-rans, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Party leaders and members might well look for someone new, rather than a 2012 retread.
Still, if Perry is governor of Texas as the 2016 race nears, he’ll be a major figure in the party with ability to raise the millions needed to run. He remains attractive as a person, as he showed at Gridiron. But he’ll have to show that he has a command of national and international issues that was noticeably lacking in 2012.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: carl.p.leubsdorfgmail.com.