A Texas Two-Step: When Rick Perry Backed Al Gore

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Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during the 2011 Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on June 18, 2011

There's an inconvenient political truth for Texas Governor Rick Perry: he was his state's 1988 campaign chairman for then U.S. Senator Al Gore's first run at the presidency.

The way their partnership has dissolved and their paths diverged in the past three decades speaks eloquently to the way American politics has been reshaped. Gore has sailed left, while Perry's political odyssey has seen him tack in the other direction — and to the opposing party. The two men opted for different paths across a dynamic, changing political landscape, and while one man fell short of the White House, the other now contemplates that prize.

The tale begins in 1984, four years before Perry took the helm of Gore's Texas campaign, when Gore, then 36 and a congressional wunderkind from Tennessee, followed in his father's footsteps by winning a U.S. Senate seat. That same year, Perry, who was 34 and from much humbler roots as the son of a Texas Rolling Plains cotton farmer, won a seat in the Texas house of representatives. Both young men were handsome sons of the South and proudly touted their philosophical bearings in the regionally dominant conservative wing of the Democratic Party.

In 1988, seizing on the opportunity afforded by a lineup of southern primaries on Super Tuesday, Gore announced his bid for the Democratic nomination for President. Ronald Reagan's second term was drawing to a close, and Republicans were set to nominate the next in line, then Vice President George H.W. Bush. The Democratic field was wide open, with a raft of candidates to the left of Gore, who was dubbed the "southern centrist" by the press. The young Senator, described by the New York Times as "solidly built, dark and indisputably handsome," lined up a list of conservative Democratic big-name supporters, including Senators Howard Heflin of Alabama, Terry Sanford of North Carolina, Bennett Johnson of Louisiana and Sam Nunn of Georgia and Governors Jim Hunt of North Carolina and Buddy Roemer of Louisiana. (In 1991 Roemer, like Perry, left the Democratic Party for the GOP; he is now also reportedly considering a Republican presidential run.)

Gore shared the views of his fellow southern centrists — he opposed the federal funding of abortion, supported a moment of silence in schools for prayer, approved funding of the Nicaraguan contras and was against the ban on interstate handgun sales. It was a platform a conservative West Texas Democrat like state representative Perry could stand on, and he signed up to chair the Senator's Texas campaign.

Several more-liberal state Democratic Party leaders cast their lots with two of the other candidates, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. But Gore worked the Texas legislative ranks for support, winning the backing of Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis and Lieut. Governor Bill Hobby. Lewis was especially important to appointing legislators to vital positions on fiscal committees. And so it was not surprising that 27 members of the Texas legislature, including Perry, a young two-term legislator, joined the duo in their support for Gore.

For Perry, picking Gore — an ambitious young Senator with a reputation as a hip "Atari Democrat" fond of high-tech innovation and new styles of communication — was a bold move. He could have chosen to stay on the sidelines, and few would have noticed his lack of an endorsement in the race. But it was consistent with Perry's penchant for hitching his wagon to whoever or whatever would move him up the political track — in this case, the statehouse leadership of Hobby and Lewis. However, Perry's Texas elders picked the wrong horse. On Super Tuesday, March 8, Gore placed third behind Dukakis and Jesse Jackson in Texas.

A decade later, Perry said the 1988 presidential primary election helped push him to his party switch. In the fall of 1988, he voted for Bush over his party's nominee, Dukakis. "I came to my senses," he told the Austin American-Statesman in 1998. Perry's efforts for Gore left few public footprints, and contemporaries on both sides of the aisle have few memories of the alliance. A longtime Hobby staffer suggested it was likely that Perry's co-chair title in Gore's 1988 Texas campaign was little more than an honorific, not a recognition of any organizational responsibility. His role was limited to a single appearance, Perry told the San Antonio Express-News in 2001, adding that he had served at the request of Lewis. But it was a fact of his political biography that would be waved in his face in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary race by Tea Party candidate Deborah Medina and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and it likely will be raised again if he chooses to seek the GOP presidential nomination. Perry has never denied the association but has treated it as a road-to-Damascus moment. "On the surface, Al Gore appeared to be the more conservative of the candidates," Perry told the Express-News, adding, "Fortunately, we found out who the real Al Gore was, and I was long on the side of the angels by then."

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