Urban cowboy? Perry makes his pitch to the restless, moneyed conservatives of New York

Rick Perry. (GovRickPerry, via flickr)
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Strange as it may seem, what with his thick Texas accent, and his decidedly red-state rhetoric, New York Republicans are looking hard at that most un-New York presidential candidate, Rick Perry.

“I’m supporting him because we need a sweeping change in Washington culture,” said David Malpass, a former Treasury official under Ronald Reagan and founder of Grow PAC. “I met with him in June and liked what I saw.”

G.O.P. donors in New York, until recently the home of late-stage Rockefeller Republicanism, had remained largely aloof from the early presidential field, having found nothing in common with the cultural conservatism of Michele Bachmann, but little to get excited about in the less-radical propositions of Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty.

Even before Perry officially joined the fray, he aroused the curiosity of local Republican contributors and leaders looking for an alternative.



In June, after Donald Trump canceled on the Manhattan Republican Committee’s annual dinner, the party sought out Perry, who was publicly mulling how his conservative record, which has already made him the longest-serving governor in Texas history, might play on the national stage.

“When I introduced him that night, I said, ‘If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,'” recalled Dan Isaacs, the local chairman.

Perry went over big.

“He hit the ball out of the park,” said Isaacs, who is hosting a fund-raising luncheon for Perry on Sept. 20 at the Harvard Club. “He was unbelievable, tremendous. Everyone loved him.”

Just as significantly, Perry had performed well at an intimate lunch earlier in the day, in front of about 30 party officials and fund-raisers.

JUST AS THE INTEREST PERRY HAS AROUSED AMONG members of New York's conservative money set says something about his ability to talk to city-dwelling rich people when he has to, it also says something about where these rich people's heads are that they're apparently so eager to hear Perry out.

For one thing, New York conservatism may not be all that different anymore from the brand practiced in places like Texas. The New York Republicans are no longer a party that nominates people like the inoffensive former congressman Rick Lazio to run for governor; they nominate people like Carl Paladino, who campaigned with a baseball bat.

For another, there's the simple truth that Republican donors in New York are actually spending their own money, and staking their own reputations, when they decide to support a presidential candidate. So the mere fact that Rick Perry may come across as culturally alien in New York is far less important than whether they think he'll play out there in swing-state America.

“It goes over great," one plugged-in Republican operative said, of Perry's cowboy-in-New York routine. "Remember, the people who write checks, they're going to be more forgiving than the average voter is oftentimes. They look at a bigger picture. They’re not going to look at one particular issue right now. They look at who’s going to win.”

This is not universally true, of course. Some very important donors who have been around a whole lot longer than the Tea Party, like the Republican superbundler Georgette Mosbacher, will absolutely not support Perry, as long as there is an alternative.

“I honestly do not know of a single big bundler who has signed on,” said Mosbacher, who co-chaired John McCain’s campaigns in 2000 and 2008 and currently serves as co-chair of the R.N.C.’s finance committee.

Mosbacher said that she and about a dozen other influential bundlers won't make a firm move until around October, after the first deadlines pass for filing to run in state primaries, in the hopes that by then another candidate—namely, New Jersey governor Chris Christie—will decide to enter the race.

But even these anti-Perry Republicans at the heart of the establishment illustrate the lack of enthusiasm about the prospective field that exists for Perry, who currently leads all G.O.P. presidential contenders in the polls, to exploit.

“If it turns out that it is a two-man race and it’s between Perry and Mitt Romney, then we’ve all kind of agreed that we’ll get to work for Mitt," Mosbacher said. "That’s in terms of the general election. But we’re not ready to do that yet. The consensus is that he can probably win one or two primaries, but when it comes to the big one, particularly Florida, it’s going to be tough. Unless somebody else jumps in.”

Mosbacher said she had received all the invitations for Perry’s New York events, but there wasn’t much he could do to persuade her.

“People I have talked to are not going to be attending those things," she said. "There are those in New York who will take a look at everybody, and that’s fine. I already know Perry, but it’s interesting because some of the invitations are non-paying. That’s unusual at this stage of the game. The fact that they’re still sending out invitations that you don’t have to pay for, says a lot.”

John Catsimatidis, the New York-based supermarket magnate and Republican donor, said he was open to the idea of supporting either candidate (as well as, naturally, Chris Christie), but he predicted that Perry would have a significantly harder time catching on with other big contributors in New York.

“It’s a very big cultural divide," Catsimatidis said.

This week, Perry will be looking to put such concerns to rest, making new friends and firming up commitments among local party players and big donors in what is his first New York fund-raising swing since he officially announced his candidacy last month.

Today, he'll be meeting with Hispanic business leaders in Inwood and, later, attending a fund-raiser on Central Park West. Tomorrow, there's the Harvard Club event, which Isaacs is hosting along with Gregory Slayton, a former fund-raiser for George W. Bush, among others. Later in the day, Malpass will co-host an event on Fifth Avenue with Mallory Factor, one of the organizers of the influential Monday meeting, and several other donors. And tomorrow night, Perry will attend a fund-raiser hosted for him by former A.I.G. chairman Hank Greenberg.

WHILE GEORGE W. BUSH BUILT A SPRAWLING national fund-raising network with considerable New York support, the spectacle of Perry doing the same thing is somewhat more arresting.

Bush was the Yale-educated son of a president; Perry is a proud son of the tiny town of Paint Creek, who spent his early years without indoor plumbing, and later attended Texas A&M with the humble dream of a veterinary career. Bush bragged about clearing brush on his ranch; Perry boasted of killing a coyote with a laser-sighted .380 handgun while jogging earlier this year. On Sunday, The New York Times' Gail Collins declared him the "Uber-Texan."

And while Bush tempered his rightward tendencies for the 2000 campaign and played up his bipartisan accomplishments on immigration issues and education, Perry downplays whatever strains of "compassion" may exist in his own conservatism. He actually seems to brighten when he gets questions about the increased rate of executions in Texas since he became governor—"I've never struggled with that at all," he told Brian Williams in the first debate, to warm applause from the audience—and he makes no apologies for the statistics that show his state lagging in education and health care, two areas in which Perry has slashed spending.

Where Bush conveyed a quiet, if committed, Christianity, Perry proclaims his faith from the heavens. In August, a week before he announced his candidacy for president, he hosted a 30,000-person prayer rally at Reliant Stadium in Houston, a few months after he issued official gubernatorial proclamations calling on Texans to pray for rain in the midst of a desperate drought.

Most of this has played enormously well in Texas. Last year, Perry easily dispatched Kay Bailey Hutchison, a moderate-by-comparison U.S. Senator who challenged him for governor, by 20 points in what was supposed to have been a difficult primary contest and a referendum on his standing in the state.