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The eyes of more than Texas are upon Rick Perry

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is a staunch critic of President Barack Obama's policies.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas is a staunch critic of President Barack Obama's policies.
  • Rick Perry boasts a national profile among GOP and Tea Party activists
  • Texas governor has fundraising power, record of economic success
  • Senior Democrats are taking the prospect of a Perry bid seriously
  • Perry-watchers say not to expect an announcement anytime soon.
  • Rick Perry

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Washington (CNN) -- The stars have aligned for Rick Perry to enter the 2012 presidential race.

Now all eyes turn to Austin, as Republicans wonder whether the swaggering Texas governor will actually take the plunge.

Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, boasts a national profile among Republicans and Tea Party activists, a network of deep-pocketed donors and a track record of creating jobs in the midst of a recession.

The implosion of Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign on Thursday -- an upheaval that saw the former House speaker's entire senior staff abandon what critics saw as a sinking ship -- left two of Perry's closest advisers, David Carney and Rob Johnson, without a candidate.

The sudden availability of his top advisers combined with the unsettled nature of the Republican presidential field has left the door wide open for Perry to step onto the national stage.

"Why wouldn't he run?" asked Mark McKinnon, a former George W. Bush adviser and longtime Perry observer. "One of the only things holding him back was two key members of his team were with Gingrich. And now that's no longer a problem."

McKinnon said, "There's a huge gap in the Republican field right now, and as a former six-man football player, Rick Perry knows how to run to the hole."

While Perry has long been the subject of presidential buzz, the speculation began anew last month when he told reporters at a bill signing in May that he would "think about" running after the state concludes its legislative business.

The regular session ended last month, but Perry convened a special 30-day session to deal with budget matters and immigration legislation that won't finish until the end of this month.

Meanwhile, Perry and his political team have been flooded with messages of encouragement in recent weeks, a deluge that's only picked up in the wake of the Gingrich spectacle.

Multiple legislators in the pivotal early primary state of South Carolina recently reached out to Perry and asked him to consider running, CNN has learned.

And after repeated efforts to contact Perry's team, a leading Tea Party activist in Iowa said he was finally able to get through to a political adviser on Friday to talk about a potential visit to the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Ryan Rhodes, the chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, said he spoke with one of Perry's aides about the possibility of joining up with an 18-day statewide bus tour he is organizing. Five GOP presidential candidates are scheduled to appear at stops along the tour.

"I was assured that they appreciate any offers to come to Iowa, but they said the governor is in the same place in his decision as he was before," Rhodes said of his conversation. "They said he won't make a decision until the session is done."

That message is consistent with what Perry's office has been saying publicly -- that any decision about the presidential race will come only after Perry takes care of official state business.

"He is thinking about it, but he is thinking about a lot of issues," said Mark Miner, the governor's communications director.

Miner brushed aside the White House buzz but said it's understandable that Republicans would want Perry to run, because Texas, with its business-friendly climate, has weathered the recession better than most states.

"He a is conservative, fiscally responsible governor that has a successful record," he told CNN. "There is always going to be talk about he running for higher office because of success he has had."

Despite the denials coming out of the governor's office, veteran political observers in Texas have detected an unmistakable change in Perry's tone about the race, stoking further speculation about his plans.

For years, Perry would act "exasperated" when asked about his White House ambitions, according to Jason Embry, the capitol bureau chief for the Austin American-Statesman.

Not anymore.

"When his team started saying he had no intention of running, instead of saying that he was not running, it was an important pivot that none of us took lightly," Embry told CNN. "And then he started saying he was focused on the legislative session, which was a far less strident denial than he had given in the past. And then, of course, in late May he said he was going to think about it. So there has clearly been an evolution."

Perry-watchers say not to expect an announcement anytime soon. The governor would presumably have to huddle with his advisers and donors to plot out a campaign strategy.

But senior Democrats are at least taking the prospect of a Perry campaign seriously.

"I think absolutely there is a path to victory for him on the Republican side," said one Democratic strategist familiar with the Obama campaign's thinking.

The strategist predicted that Perry could appeal to social conservatives and Tea Party activists in Iowa and South Carolina but might face problems in New Hampshire.

If Perry manages to win the nomination, the strategist said, he would be haunted by his infamous 2009 suggestion that Texas might secede from the United States in the face of federal overreach.

"It would certainly be an interesting campaign, running against somebody who is running for president of the United States who had previously said he'd consider seceding from it," the Democrat said.