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Wisdom about Perry may be premature

Is President Obama privately rooting for Rick Perry?

That’s the conventional wisdom here in the capital city, where pundits and inside-the-Beltway prognosticators believe Obama would be a virtual shoo-in against the shoot-from-the-lip Texas governor. Given the discontent seeping from some precincts of the Republican Party — Karl Rove is openly pining for a more respectable alternative to challenge Mitt Romney —many GOP leaders seem to agree.

After all, Perry is a right-wing hard-liner who has flirted with secession, led a fundamentalist Christian prayer rally and supports legislation that would allow guns on college campuses. As a newbie on the national stage, he’s bound to make the sort of mistakes that offend large portions of the populace and become fodder for his political rivals.

None of that means he won’t be the next president of the United States. Obama would be extraordinarily naive to believe running against Perry would be a romp to a second term.

The longest-serving governor in Texas history, Perry is a battle-tested political veteran who has dismantled worthy opponents. To win the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 2010, he decisively beat back a challenge from Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. In other words, he’s no Sarah Palin, who retreats into a brittle blame-game under pressure.

There is no doubt that Perry is the sort of extremist who excites much of the GOP base —tea partiers, right-wing Christians, gun enthusiasts, government-phobes and no-taxers. But extremists can win over mainstream voters, especially when the economic climate is gloomy.

History is replete with examples wherein demagogues promising salvation during difficult times were able to seduce otherwise rational folk. Indeed, these are boom times for paranoid conspiracy theorists, far-right fringers and cultists who deny empirical data.

So what if Perry calls Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, “treasonous,” doubts climate change and dismisses evolution? In his sphere of influence, he’s downright mainstream.

Perry’s broader appeal will lie in the story of a Texas economy that has escaped the worst of the Great Recession. As he tells it, the tale stars a certain gun-toting governor and is full of anecdotes that burnish his reputation as an anti-government, anti-regulation, anti-tax, free-market champion.

Of course, the story as Perry tells it is largely apocryphal. Texas exceptionalism rests on characteristics that Perry had nothing to do with, including vast reserves of oil and natural gas. As rising petroleum prices have exacerbated economic woes for the average consumer, they’ve buoyed Texas.

But the best part of the Texas story lies in something that you’ll never hear from Perry or his supporters. Strict state laws against predatory lending — as in “government regulation” — spared the state high rates of foreclosure. Writing in The Washington Post last year, Alyssa Katz, author of a book on the real estate boom, noted that fewer than 6 percent of Texas homeowners were in foreclosure, while the national average hovered at 10 percent.

Texas didn’t even allow home-equity loans until 1998. If other states had the same laws that forbade “cash-out” mortgages and other insane loans, the whole country would be in better shape.

Not that any of that will matter much on the campaign trail, where the candidate who spins the best story can throttle his opponents — especially when recession-hungry voters are desperate for the promise of a return to prosperity. Contrast that with a president who hasn’t managed a coherent story that gives voters either hope for better times or an outlet for their anger at their current prospects.

Granted, Obama is just now warming up his flaccid campaign muscles. Perhaps, in a few months, he’ll manage something more inspiring than his recent calls for an infrastructure bank and “patent reform.” (Who besides lawyers and start-up investors gets misty-eyed over patent reform?)

He’d better. According to the latest Gallup poll, the president’s approval rating on the economy has sunk to an all-time low of 26 percent. That’s quite understandable given an economy that’s generating plenty of profits for big corporations but few jobs for workers who need them. Foreclosure rates remain high, as does household debt.

Obama has a decent shot at a second term only because the Republican presidential field remains the captive of its far-right base. But a member of that field could still emerge with a compelling story that wins the presidency. Don’t count Perry out.

Cynthia Tucker can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.