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Who's the real Rick Perry?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette: There are two sides to Rick Perry
  • He says Texas governor has taken conservative stands on many issues
  • Perry supporters might be surprised by his stance on the border fence, illegal immigration, he says
  • Navarrette: Perry has won 11 contested elections

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. writes a weekly column for CNN.com and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- Will the real Rick Perry please stand up?

Is the Texas governor and newest GOP presidential hopeful what many of his supporters think: a stalwart conservative who talks straight and will not bend on principle? Or is he what some of his critics claim: a squishy pragmatist with middle-of-the-road positions reminiscent of the days when he was a Democrat?

The answer is: "Yes." He's both. And he's neither.

Ask any of my friends in Texas, and they'll tell you: The pride of Paint Creek, Texas, is much more complicated than most people realize at first glance. In fact, take it from someone who lived in Texas for five years and wrote about Perry as a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, he is as close to an enigma as you'll find on today's political landscape.

It is a winning formula. A fantastic campaigner, Perry has won 11 contested elections in Texas. Now he has his sights set on No. 12 -- and, if he wins his party's nomination, No. 13.

A new poll from Rasmussen Reports of likely GOP voters finds Perry favored by 29%, compared to 18% for Mitt Romney and 13% for Michele Bachmann.

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Here's my theory: The secret to Perry's success -- or at least one of them -- is that he is flexible in what he espouses. He has principles and core beliefs, but his politics aren't rigid.

Nowhere is that clearer than on the issue of immigration. Perry opposes more fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border, signed a law that granted in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants, criticized Arizona's tough immigration law as not right for Texas, and supported a path to earned legal status for the undocumented. But he also supported Arizona's right to enforce immigration law, led the fight against so-called "sanctuary cities" to enlist local police in the enforcement of immigration laws, and just recently told supporters in New Hampshire that the U.S. government should use predator drones to aid in the drug war by providing surveillance of the border.

A few months ago, Perry got a rude reception from a group of Latino leaders at a conference in San Antonio because he was perceived as too tough on illegal immigration.

I don't think his views are that simple. Here's one story. A couple of years after I moved to San Diego, I got a call at my office. It was Rick Perry. The governor was in town vacationing with his family, and offered to get together for iced tea and friendly conversation. Because the talk was off-the-record, I won't reveal what was said, but I can say this: Perry wanted to convince me that he understood, better than many Republicans, that the immigration debate isn't always driven by solely a concern for law and order and that some of it is fueled by racism.

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That meeting came to mind recently when I read a screed from former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, who insists the border governor is soft on illegal immigration. In a piece for Politico, Tancredo accused Perry of calling him a "racist."

If true, that's quite perceptive. Perry wasn't the first Republican to make that observation about Tancredo, and he probably won't be the last. In the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain challenged Tancredo for his divisive and nativist views. Tancredo reciprocated by sending McCain a plate of nachos during a campaign stop at a Mexican restaurant.

Still, I have to wonder: How does this all add up for those Perry supporters who think they're backing someone who will be tough on border security, increase deportations and defend U.S. culture? When they get a closer look at their candidate, they're in for a big disappointment.

On the other side of that coin, Perry might actually have a shot at luring some Latino voters to the GOP. Not in the numbers that George W. Bush did to be sure, but perhaps in great enough numbers to allow him to do well in heavily Latino battleground states like Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

Yet that's where the comparisons with Bush should end. It's no secret in Texas that there is no love lost between Bush and Perry or their respective loyalists.

We got a whiff of that this week when former Bush political strategist Karl Rove slammed as not "presidential" Perry's remarks about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke being guilty of nothing less than treason if he adopted a new "quantitative easing" round by printing more money.

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If you want to compare Perry to someone, try Bill Clinton. Like the former president, Perry is the kind of candidate everyday Americans can relate to. He has abundant political skills. He is affable, charming and a great campaigner. His gift is that quality that Clinton had, the ability to lock in and make someone feel as if he is the only person in the room. That comes from liking people, and Perry does.

Clinton was challenged by members of his own party, accused of not having core principles, criticized for occasionally saying the wrong thing and slammed for putting his interests before everyone else's. And yet, for all his imperfections, Clinton also racked up victories in two presidential elections.

Anyone, in either party, who stands between Rick Perry and his next "win" would be wise to remember that.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.