By Joel Gehrke
August 9, 2014 1:06 PM
National Review

Fort Worth, Texas — Governor Rick Perry (R., Texas) is returning to the national political stage, and regaining the respect of the conservative base, due to his handling of an issue that was a major political liability in 2012.

“The people who are here this year who have been deeply skeptical of him in the past are seeing the whole national guard issue and securing the border and suddenly reacting to him differently than they did in the past,” RedState editor Erick Erickson told National Review Online after Perry’s speech Friday at the RedState Gathering in Fort Worth. “They don’t think he’s squishy on the issue since he’s sending the soldiers.”

Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) is first in the hearts of the attendees. Erickson introduced him as “the leader of the conservative movement,” to the delight of the crowd; after the speech, the audience stood as Erickson prayed for the Tea Party hero.

Perry was the morning star of the conference, though. “If Washington won’t act to secure the border, as the governor of Texas, I will,” he declared, eliciting a 22-second standing ovation.

Perry’s reception at RedState suggests that he may have solved a problem that hamstrung his 2012 presidential bid. Long before the “oops” moment, Perry’s rivals ripped him up one way and down the other for signing a bill that provided in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who attended Texas universities.

“We have to turn off the magnet like that $100,000 discount for going to the University of Texas,” Mitt Romney said during a 2011 presidential debate.

“I think he’s very weak on this issue of American sovereignty and protecting our borders and not being a magnet for illegal immigration,” then-candidate Rick Santorum concurred.

Perry’s rejoinder was one of the low points of his campaign. “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” he said.

Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint, who was careful not to endorse Perry or any other candidate, told NRO that he thinks the border crisis has allowed Perry to “inoculate” himself from that attack.

“Dealing firmly with what’s happening on the border now will to some degree inoculate him from statements in the past,” DeMint told NRO during a Friday interview. “And so, we’ll see how it plays out. There’s no one who will run who hasn’t made a statement or voted for something that wasn’t exactly what they would want now.”

Heritage Action and other conservatives have used the same “magnet” metaphor deployed against Perry to describe President Obama’s immigration policies, though. Is it easy for a presidential rival to say that Perry and Obama’s magnets helped create the border crisis?

“It’s all rhetoric, it’s all done in front of the cameras,” Katrina Pierson, a close ally of Senator Ted Cruz (R. Texas) — she was an early supporter of his Senate campaign and Cruz’s father, Rafael, endorsed her congressional bid — told NRO. “Just going back to the last legislative session, he could have ended sanctuary cities, he could have ended all kinds of magnets.”

Erickson suggested that attack wouldn’t work this time around. “What came before the in-state tuition issue in 2012 was his issue of securing the border and [saying] ‘we don’t need a fence, we can do it with drones and whatnot’ and people were thinking he might be soft on securing the border,” he told NRO, before describing Perry’s performance at a closed press event with conference attendees Thursday night.

“[Perry] went through the names of all of the people who have been killed along the border by illegals who have been deported and were able to get back in, and he gave very strong indications of ‘we’ve got to do even more to secure the border,’” he said. And, I think the in-state tuition issue shifts if his initial issue of securing the border becomes stronger.”

Cruz let Perry off the hook when asked if in-state tuition or sanctuary had contributed to the influx of children at the border.

“What the evidence seems to indicate is that the overwhelming motivation is the belief that if they come, they’ll get amnesty,” Cruz told NRO Friday. “The border patrol interviewed over 200 people who had come recently, asked them why they were coming. Ninety-five percent said [it’s] because they believe they’ll get amnesty, they believe they’ll get a permiso. If you look at the numbers, some of those policies you’ve described have been in place a long, long time, and we didn’t see the dramatic spike in unaccompanied minors until the president unilaterally granted amnesty in 2012.”

However that issue plays out in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Perry will have his chance to be in the thick of the fight.

“He’s a top-tier candidate, just given that he’s the longest serving Governor of Texas and is a governor in the 2016 [cycle], has a fundraising base,” Erickson said. “But he’s going to have to have some initial ‘wow’ moments on stage with voters to reassure them that 2012 was a fluke due to back surgery and not just who he is.”

DeMint described Perry has a “dark horse,” but he seems to expect the Texas governor to turn in the kinds of performances Erickson described.

“I think it’s just a matter of him getting in front of people again,” DeMint said. “He can break down those keys to success into some pretty focused ideas that make a lot of good common sense, that don’t sound partisan, that could be very appealing.”