For a man who hasn't formally decided whether to run for president, Texas Gov. Rick Perry sure sounds a lot like a candidate.
"I'm not ready to tell you that I'm ready to announce that I'm in," Perry told the Des Moines Register, the biggest newspaper in Iowa, where the first big test in the Republican nomination race is held. "But I'm getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I've been called to do. This is what America needs."
And Perry isn't just being called; he says he's being actively pushed to run by his wife, Anita, a former nurse.
"Get out of your comfort zone!" he says his wife told him. "Yeah, being governor of Texas is a great job, but sometimes you're called to step into the fray."
So Perry has taken all the preparatory steps a potential candidate should take. He's hired political consultants to prepare a blueprint. He's met with conservative grandees, including Kansas' Koch brothers and others who once bankrolled another Texas governor, George W. Bush. He's visited California twice in the past month to feel out potential donors and supporters. He's even spent time boning up on foreign policy.
And that's been enough to touch off a boomlet of Perrymania, at least in some parts of the Republican Party. Perry says he may not decide whether to run until Labor Day, but the mere possibility was enough to vault him into second place in two polls released last week, close behind the dogged but unloved frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who unlike Perry is actually running, came in third.)
Polls don't mean much at this early stage of a presidential race, but they do reveal whether anyone has the contest sewed up, and Romney clearly doesn't. In a Fox News poll, Romney came in first with an underwhelming 17% — although, to be fair, Fox offered a long wish list of names, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, neither of whom appears to be actively preparing a candidacy.
The point is that most Republican voters haven't found their dream candidate yet. There's a big hole in the Republican field, and it's made to order for a Southern governor who's conservative on social issues but not censorious, and who'd rather talk about cutting government spending and holding down taxes.
Perry's favorite claim is that in recent years Texas has created almost as many jobs as the other 49 states combined, and that his low-tax, low-regulation policies are the reason. Economists debate how much credit Perry deserves; the fact that Texas produces oil and we're in an oil boom helped too. But Texas has done better at job creation than most states, and it's hard to think of a more potent talking point in a campaign that will be fought largely over economic issues.
Perry's conservatism goes beyond low taxes, though.
His pre-campaign book, "Fed Up," is mostly an essay about the evils of federal power and an appeal to move decision-making back to the states as laboratories of democracy.
"We are tired of being told how much salt to put on our food, what kind of cars we can drive, what kind of guns we can own [and] what kind of prayers we are allowed to say," he writes in his list of complaints against the federal government (which doesn't actually tell people any of those things, unless you count Agriculture Department brochures about salt).
Last month, he sponsored a bill in the Texas Legislature that would have made it a criminal offense for a federal airport security screener to perform an "intrusive" pat-down on a passenger in Texas. (The bill failed.)
And he proclaims himself a good notch more conservative than his predecessor, George W. Bush, whom he blames for launching a "big-government binge" by expanding federal programs in education and healthcare.
But in the spirit of states' rights, Perry is cheerfully tolerant of diversity in social policy. He's a vigorous opponent of gay marriage, but if the voters of other states want it, he seems to think that's their problem. "Vote with your feet," he advises. "If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don't come to Texas. If you don't like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don't move to California." (The news that Californians voted to prohibit gay marriage in 2008 apparently never made it to Austin.)
Perry wears his evangelical Christian faith on his sleeve, which will help him with some voters but not others. In April, he called for three days of prayer for divine intercession to end Texas' drought. (It didn't work.) Next month, he's holding a seven-hour prayer rally at Houston's professional football stadium with some of the biggest names in evangelical ministry.
What's holding him back from running?
"We don't know whether it's doable," Perry's political strategist, David M. Carney, told me. "Most people running for president do it for years. We'd be trying to do it in 200 days."
The biggest practical problem Perry faces, Carney said, is fundraising. It could take $50 million to run a credible primary campaign. "It takes time to raise money — the candidate's time," he noted. Major donors want to meet a candidate in person before they write a check or recruit their friends to help.
But even if Perry decides that the fundraising challenge can be conquered, he has a more basic decision to make.
"He needs to do a gut check," Carney said. "You can't run for president as a hobby."
And there's a third question Perry needs to consider, in the view of some potential supporters: Can he present his ruggedly conservative views in a way that will appeal to voters far from Texas?
The conventional wisdom is that he's too conservative, too controversial and maybe not as book smart as the men he'd be running against. But that's what they said in 1980, when the candidate was Ronald Reagan.
Shawn Steel, former chairman of the California Republican Party — who met with Perry in Newport Beach last month — isn't sure that Perry can pull off a Reagan-style victory. The former California governor, he noted, could "take controversial positions and make them sound like ice cream. Can Perry do that?"
Right now, Perry's rawboned conservatism doesn't sound much like ice cream. It's more like strong tea, with no sweetener. But even his toughest critics in Texas say he's a formidable campaigner, so if he runs, we'll see an epic battle for the heart of the Republican Party.