Texas Governor Rick Perry's arrival one recent Monday at the Iowa State Fair indicated that the race to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency - an increasingly tempting prospect - had finally begun. Until Perry entered the race, it had been defined and led by the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had conducted his campaign largely by hiding out between fundraising events, and had been able to convince neither Republicans nor Democrats that he's burning to lead a counter-revolution. His serious rivals had tended to fade, like Governor Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman; and his strongest challenge came from Michele Bachmann, representative for Minnesota, a symbolic conservative firebrand who has stumbled on such details of policy and political fundamentals as showing up to events.
Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history, is a serious contender. He has a true conservative record that dates back to his days advocating pesticide use as agriculture commissioner of Texas, deep wells of money at hand, and retail political skills that put reporters following him in mind of Bill Clinton. And he is a dream to cover. At the state fair, he kissed babies and ate a pork chop on a stick, the local delicacy, moving from rigid cowboy pose to pose, an act that seemed to be dictated as much by recent back surgery as by machismo, but worked.
He answered question after question from swarming reporters. I asked him about his suggestion in an interview last year that he would replace social security with a system of state pensions - a stand that in ordinary times could cost him the White House - and he gamely repeated that he'd consider it.
Perry almost always plays to type, a type defined by the sympathetic Twitter parody @rickperryfacts: "Rick Perry can kill two stones with one bird . . . Rick Perry sleeps with his pillow under his gun . . . The Roman empire didn't fall, Rick Perry tripped it . . . Rick Perry's brisket is so good, he has been banned from all BBQ competitions . . . Atheists believe in Rick Perry."
He is a leading advocate for the right to carry concealed weapons, and as his own stories often feature him shooting something - a favourite one tells of him shooting a coyote while out for a job - I asked him if he was armed that day at the fair. Putting an arm around my shoulder, he responded: "That's why they call it concealed."
That night in Cedar Rapids, a reporter asked him about the Federal Reserve, our central bank. "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas," Perry said. "I mean, printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous, or treasonous, in my opinion."
He may have scandalised Wall Street, but the answer played well in Cedar Rapids. By the end of the weekend, Obama's supporters - unable to fear the Republican field despite the president's woes - had woken up. Perry is straightforwardly terrifying, a gift to Obama.
Perry is a familiar figure to liberals. He was George W Bush's lieutenant governor, but you sometimes get the impression that Bush learned his shtick from Perry, not vice versa. Indeed, he is more or less what Europeans and American liberals imagined when they foamed at the mouth about Bush. While the 43rd president cultivated a Texas affect to balance out his roots in dynasty, Perry is the real deal.
Raised in a tiny farming town without a single stoplight, Perry got marks at agricultural college that weren't good enough to qualify for veterinary studies. He left with a degree in animal husbandry, and a specialty in football cheerleading that won him Texas A&M's coveted post of "Yell Leader".
His 2010 policy manifesto, Fed Up, speaks to the id of a branch of the Republican Party that's more interested in rolling back the federal government than in experimenting with federal policy. There's much in it to please conservatives - but also a great deal to worry those who would like to beat Obama next November.
On matters of policy, Perry is probably to the right of any Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 campaign. In Fed Up, he wrote that the passage of social security in 1935 required "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles" and suggested that federal banking, environmental and labour regulations are all unconstitutional. His staff have been forced to pull back from his jesting threats that Texas could secede from the Union. There was a reason Bush rebranded his version of small-government Texan politics "compassionate conservatism", but Perry hasn't put any sort of veneer on his views.
These stands will not trouble most Republican primary voters, but their implications may. They are targets for an Obama advertising campaign because their implications - abolishing social security, first of all - are so extreme. Merged with Perry's swagger, they could drive away key swing voters - women in the suburbs of big cities such as Philadelphia. The White House has signalled that Obama would rather run against Perry than Romney; some analysts speculate that it might even help him with early attacks on the former Massachusetts governor.
The former National Review editor William Buckley often promised to support the most conservative candidate who was electable. It's a rule Republicans have taken to heart, and Perry's chances will depend on how confident Republicans are that dissatisfaction with Obama will trump independents' concerns about Perry's style and substance. On 23 August the president reached his lowest point ever in Gallup's daily tracking polls, with approval ratings of 38 per cent. If numbers like that persist, Republican voters may just go with the cowboy.
Ben Smith writes for politico.com