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Perry appeals to social and fiscal conservatives

By Tom Cohen and Ed Hornick, CNN
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at an event calling for prayer to help save "a nation in crisis" in Houston on Saturday.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at an event calling for prayer to help save "a nation in crisis" in Houston on Saturday.
  • A source says the Texas governor will announce his presidential candidacy Saturday
  • A new poll shows Perry about even with Republican front-runner Mitt Romney
  • Perry's entry will shake up the field seeking the Republican presidential nomination

Washington (CNN) -- Is Rick Perry the new white knight of the right?

With Republicans expressing general dissatisfaction over the field of presidential candidates so far, Perry's expected entry to the race is considered an effort to galvanize the divided political right behind a contender who can appeal to tea party and Christian conservatives as well as pro-business moderates.

Perry, a devout Christian, succeeded George W. Bush in the Texas governor's office and has held that job longer than anyone in state history. Now he looks poised to attempt to follow his predecessor's lead a second time.

According to a new interview with Time magazine, Perry described himself as "very calm in my heart that this is what I'm supposed to be doing."

Perry will deliver a speech on Saturday at a major conservative gathering in South Carolina. A Republican familiar with Perry's plans told CNN on Thursday that Perry will announce his candidacy at the speech.

His entry into the race will shake up the Republican field, putting Perry into direct competition with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota for core right-wing support. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, if she runs, also would vie for that backing.

A new CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday showed 15% of Republican and independent voters who lean toward the GOP picked Perry as their choice for the Republican nomination.

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That put Perry, still a noncandidate, just 2 percentage points behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, considered the front-runner in the nominating process. Romney's advantage over Perry is within the survey's sampling error.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University, said Perry's appeal to both social and fiscal conservatives could be crucial in the South Carolina Republican primary, which every GOP presidential nominee has won since 1980.

"He would appeal to tea party Republicans, he would appeal to the individuals who are interested in job creation in the state," Black told CNN. "He can also I think appeal to evangelical Christians, and the overlap between evangelical tea party Republicans, economic development Republicans -- those are a lot of voters in a South Carolina Republican primary."

Donald Bishop, who spoke to CNN at the Fellowship Baptist Church in Lexington, South Carolina, said he likes what he knows so far about Perry.

"I like what he's doing economically in Texas. I like his stance, his belief in Christ," Bishop said.

To Democrats, Perry represents an uncannily similar opponent as Bush -- both are Texans who portray themselves as straight-talking conservatives who cherish their Christianity and their country.

In a sign that the political left is taking Perry seriously, comedian Stephen Colbert has already launched an ad through his tongue-in-cheek "super" political action committee asking voters to support Rick Parry -- a deliberate misspelling of the governor's name.

Perry said in the Time interview that the economy would be the top issue of the 2012 campaign and sounded pro-small government themes embraced by the tea party movement. The title of his book published last year says it all: "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington."

His appeal to Christian conservatives also is clear. Last weekend, Perry delivered a Scripture-invoking, 10-minute talk at a daylong prayer and fasting event in Houston called "The Response."

Leading thousands of worshippers in prayer, Perry called on God's help to comfort Americans reeling from the nation's troubled economy.

In an apparent gesture to critics who have accused him of mixing prayer and politics, Perry joked, "God is wise enough not to be affiliated with any political party."

His conservative Christian identity considered a likely asset against Romney, who is Mormon.

Asked about Romney, Bishop called him "a decent, clean, moral individual," then added, "I do not agree with all his Mormon beliefs, but I would have no problem with him being ..." His voice trailed off without completing the sentence.

Perry, 61, is a native of Paint Creek, a small farming community north of Abilene. A graduate of Texas A&M University, Perry joined the U.S. Air Force in 1972 and flew C-130 tactical cargo aircraft in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. After leaving the Air Force, he returned to Paint Creek to farm with his father.

Perry married his childhood sweetheart, Anita, in 1982. They have two adult children.

He began his political career in 1985 as Democratic state representative in a rural West Texas district. Perry switched to the Republican Party in 1989, and a year later, he became the state's Commissioner of Agriculture, serving two terms.

In 1998, Perry became Bush's lieutenant governor, and he graduated to governor when Bush became president two years later. Perry won election to a four-year term in 2002, and then re-election in 2006 and again in 2010 for an unprecedented third term.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Political Project at the University of Texas-Austin, said people in Texas just "seem comfortable with him."

"I think in a lot of ways he's become by virtue of longevity and the way he's used the office as probably one of the most powerful governors in the history of the state," Henson said.

Mark Miner, Perry's communications director, told CNN it's understandable that many in the party want him to run because Texas, with its business-friendly climate, weathered the recession better than most states -- including lower unemployment.

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

The question is whether his conservative credentials will appeal to independents in New Hampshire -- and those voting in the general election.

"In a difficult economy, independents are going to be a little skeptical," Henson said. "But I think it's an open question on whether they'll be scared of Perry."

CNN's Gabriella Schwarz, John Sepulvado and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.