Launching his presidential campaign Thursday in a sun-soaked airport hangar here, Rick Perry worked hard — sweating profusely in the process — to tell supporters who exactly he is: the proud son of Paint Creek, Texas; an Air Force veteran who has never forgotten what the military taught him; the longest-serving governor of one of the biggest states.
Yet he was just as explicit about he is not: one of those grandstanding, self-serving U.S. senators, untested in their youth and tainted by the broken politics of a gridlocked Washington.
"We have seen what happens when we elect a president based on media acclaim rather than a record of accomplishment," Perry said, conjuring freshman Sen. Barack Obama, the gentleman from Illinois. "This will be a 'show-me, don’t tell me' election, where voters look past the rhetoric to the real record."
"The question of every candidate will be this one: When have you led?" Perry added, posing the same query that is a regular part of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 stump speech. "Leadership is not a speech on the Senate floor. It’s not what you say; it’s what you do. And we will not find the kind of leadership needed to revitalize the country by looking to the political class in Washington."
Perry has said it all before in some form or fashion, but the overarching critique came full circle here, where the former governor delivered his most cohesive argument yet against sending another Obama to the White House. The not-so-subtle subtext: Pay attention, first-term Sens. Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — all 2016 prospects polling higher than Perry.
In the governors-versus-senators debate, history is on Perry's side. Obama was the first president directly elected from Congress since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
"There is no better stepping stone or more common stepping stone to the presidency than a governor’s office — particularly from a big state where a governor is responsible for a large budget and large executive branch," said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron who has written about executive politics.
"Though governors get criticized for lacking foreign policy and national security experience, most governors deal with promoting trade for their state as well as head the state national guard," Cohen said in an email.
Unsurprisingly, Perry's targets on Capitol Hill see it differently, repeatedly brushing off his occupational needling. In March, Paul, R-Ky., suggested Perry was lashing out at senators as an act of desperation because he was not doing well in the race. And Cruz likes to note — sarcastically — how ironic it is that that so many governors think they would make the best president.
To that end, Perry is not alone in his gubernatorial pride.
"I believe, personally, a person who’s been a governor — doesn’t matter who it is — has actually run a microcosm of the federal government," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said during an interview in March in Iowa. "Every agency that exists at the federal level exists at the state level, so you understand the full playing field."
"The legislative branch is deliberative. The executive branch is decisive," he added, explaining the country needs both, though he has an unsurprising preference for the latter.
As the hangar cleared out here Tuesday, a Perry supporter said the debate does not need to boil down to an either-or choice. Caleb Orr, sophomore class president at Abilene Christian University, professed his "love" for Perry — but he held his applause when the former governor put senators in his crosshairs.
"I know that he said in his speech that a Senate speech is not leadership. Well, I think in a lot of ways it can be, especially when you have national policy experience or you're on the national stage," he said. "It's a lot easier to get things done at perhaps the state level, but taking national leadership requires a lot of courage and looking through all the nuances of national and foreign policy."
For his part, Cruz seemed unfazed by the debate over White House credentials. Shortly after the former governor's announcement, the senator was asked on Fox News about Perry's "ribbing" over executive experience.
"Well, I'm not sure we're going into surgery," Cruz replied, "but I am certainly glad to welcome my friend Rick Perry into the presidential race."