After plummeting from prime contender to political punchline three years ago, Gov. Rick Perry has spent months gearing up for a second run. And he's turned his recent indictment on felony abuse-of-power charges into a campaign rallying cry.
But even as Perry works to convince conservatives that he'll be better at coping with the national spotlight this time, he's increasingly bumping up against his state's junior senator, tea party darling Ted Cruz, whose firebomb approach on Capitol Hill has grassroots activists clamoring for him to make a White House run.
The prospect of a two-Texan presidential tilt is dominating political conversation in the state, even outshining a fiercely contested governor's race — and starting to get noticed nationally. Perry's preparations have long been obvious, while Cruz is working to raise his profile beyond just the far-right base and insert himself into the presidential conversation.
Asked about the 2016 prospects of both, Jim DeMint, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, replied, "I think Cruz even more than Perry right now."
Though he's not endorsing either yet, DeMint added, "Ted has become really the national conservative leader."
Cruz and Perry, along with potential presidential rival Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, are addressing this weekend's national gathering of Americans for Prosperity, the powerful group backed by the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. Cruz has made himself the star of such events, sometimes introduced as "our next president."
At a recent national gathering organized by the conservative blog RedState, hundreds of attendees bowed their heads to pray for him, calling Cruz an instrument of God's will.
Cruz himself says "time will tell" if he joins the presidential race. Perry has made no secret he's seriously considering a run.
Two Texans haven't competed for the presidency since George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992. Things got testy that time, as the New England-born incumbent had his true-Texas credentials questioned by the billionaire Dallas businessman, with his exaggerated twang and outlandish axioms like, "If someone as blessed as I am is not willing to clean out the barn, who will?"
"I think they're both running. They probably don't like me saying it," said Texas Republican Party chairman Steve Munisteri, who noted that Texas' March 1 presidential primary in 2016 should make it the first to vote among large states, and could leave only one Texan standing.
Both, meanwhile, would be competing at least to start for the same slice of the Republican base, the religious and social conservatives energized by an intense mistrust of President Barack Obama.
Some Texas donors are already bracing for the prospect. "I'd be splitting dollars, no question," said George Strake, Jr., a formerTexas secretary of state and Perry 2012 donor who also served as Houston finance chairman for Cruz's Senate campaign. "It's going to split up a lot of people who used to give to the same one, or who maybe even used to be friends."
Perry is a monster fundraiser but relies heavily on Texas. Cruz has raised big bucks from a large national base that tends to give in small increments.
Cruz has been unequivocal in standing behind Perry following the governor's indictment for cutting off state funds to an office investigating statewide corruption after the Democratic district attorney who runs it ignored his calls to resign. But the two Republicans don't always see eye-to-eye. Perry's key selling point is his record as a job-creator, overseeing Texas' white-hot economy. But Cruz counters that only the free market, not politicians offering tax incentives or pulling policy strings, as Perry has done, can create jobs.
Asked about the possibility that Cruz had outpaced him as Texas' top conservative, Perry quipped in June, "Ask me in eight years if Senator Cruz has made an impact."
At a recent event, Cruz made a subtle dig when he flubbed while counting off a list of his Senate accomplishments: "Victory number four — five," Cruz said, adding, "I could say 'oops,' but that would make news." That recalls Perry's infamous 2011 "oops moment" brain freeze in a 2010 GOP debate that damaged his candidacy.
As the GOP field takes shape, Perry has been to Iowa five times since November, as well as to New Hampshire and South Carolina. Cruz has been to all three states even more often. His former regional director has founded a group called Draft Ted Cruz for President.
Jamie Johnson, a Republican Central Committee member in Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucus, says the buzz about2016 is growing. Especially about Cruz.
"It's not just name recognition or likability, it's how much will people rearrange their schedule to go see someone or meet someone," Johnson said "and that is happening for Ted Cruz."
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.