Image: Rick Perry
Scott Audette  /  REUTERS
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during the CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Florida September 12, 2011.
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updated 9/20/2011 4:37:28 PM ET 2011-09-20T20:37:28

It’s an intriguing and personal subplot in the Republican presidential contest: the feud between current front-runner Rick Perry and strategic mastermind Karl Rove. As the Texas governor has surged to the top of the GOP field, the tension between him and the man who helped bring him into the Republican Party more than 20 years ago has spilled into public view.

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The Perry-Rove square-off isn’t merely a soap-opera distraction. The way Perry and his team handle it could have real implications for his candidacy as he seeks to cement his status as the favorite to win the party’s nomination. Rove defines the GOP political establishment for many conservative activists, and he drew their ire last year when he offered unbridled criticism of Delaware Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell. Using him as a foil could cement Perry’s standing among conservatives, like members of the tea party, who are distrustful of the party’s establishment and are poised to play an important role in next year’s primary.

The genesis of Rove and Perry’s rivalry is a well-known story, although the details are still disputed. Rove can lay claim to launching Perry’s career: He and a cadre of others, including Perry’s longtime media consultant David Weeks, persuaded the then-Democratic state lawmaker to run as a Republican for agriculture commissioner in 1990. Rove even helped manage Perry’s campaign.

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The two men remained on mostly good terms until Perry ran for lieutenant governor in 1998, the same year that Bush was seeking reelection as governor. According to most accounts, the fallout began here. People with knowledge of the events spoke on condition of anonymity, concerned about getting on the wrong side of either man.

Rove wanted Bush not only to win reelection, but to amass an overwhelming margin of victory as he prepared to run for president. His strategy depended in part on the Republican ticket, including the lieutenant governor, avoiding negative ads that could sour Democrats on Bush. But that decision, people close to Perry say, ignored the peril Perry faced in his matchup with popular Democrat John Sharp, who was running nearly even with Perry in the polls.

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When Perry and his strategists proposed running negative ads against Sharp, Rove, now working only for the governor, nixed the idea, threatening to retaliate by pulling an ad of Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, endorsing Perry. Perry's team was furious. One source confirmed reports that Dave Carney, recruited by Rove to help Perry in 1998 and now the chief strategist of the Texas governor's presidential campaign, punched a hole through a campaign office wall in anger at Rove’s decision.

But a source close to Rove offers a different account, saying that Rove counseled Perry against running a negative ad that could undercut the Bush endorsement spot, which Rove saw as a key to Perry's victory. The election results proved Rove right, this source added. Perry won even though his own campaign's polling had him down by as much as 14 points just before Election Day.

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But Perry's victory was a narrow one. He captured just 50 percent of the vote. David Beckwith, a longtime GOP political hand in Texas who was unofficially working with Bush at the time, said that while Bush campaign officials celebrated on election night, Perry’s people were nervously awaiting returns well into the night. When the television cameras arrived at 10 p.m., Beckwith says, Perry wasn’t able to greet them.

“Perry couldn’t even get out there because he couldn’t report anything yet,” he said. Carney denies the account.

Perry emerged as a political force in the Lone Star state in his own right that night — and a feud was born.

“That was the beginning of the ill will,” said Bill Miller, a longtime lobbyist in Austin. “Perry thought he was being played second-fiddle to Bush by Karl.”

The relationship between the two men only deteriorated afterward. Perry’s power rose steadily in Texas. He transformed a relatively weak governorship into a potent force after 10 years. In 2007, as Bush’s poll numbers dove, Perry said the president had never been a true fiscal conservative, irking Rove and others in Bush's circle.

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The animosity culminated in 2010, when Rove, along with a number of other members of the former president's inner circle, backed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s unsuccessful challenge to Perry in the GOP gubernatorial primary. By that point, Perry probably didn’t need another reason to dislike Rove. Many describe the governor as inclined to hold a grudge, even one that extends decades.

For Rove, watching Perry enter the national stage so successfully may be hard for a man who once ruled Texas Republican politics with an iron fist.

“Karl has sat on top of Texas politicians forever, pretty much since he got here,” Miller said. “Right now, it’s the first time ever, you have one who kind of eclipsed his reach. It’s different for him.”

Perry is also a favorite of tea party activists across the country, a group that views Rove with suspicion. Rove is a “company man,” said Tamara Colbert, co-founder of the conservative group TeaPAC, adding that she liked Perry’s willingness to take him on.

“Speaking from the tea party perspective, we want somebody who is not beholden to having to do things the old way,” she said.

For its part, Perry’s team emphasizes that any feud with Rove is little more than media hype. Or, as Carney put it in an interview, it’s an “unbelievably manufactured” story.

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“My memory is completely different,” he said. “I don’t where this talk comes from.”

Several who know Rove suggest he might also be trying to downplay the rivalry. Reggie Bashur, a Republican strategist in Texas, said Rove’s criticism was offered only because he’s a pundit, one who will criticize all of the candidates.

“I had breakfast with Karl six weeks ago, and he was anything but critical,” said Bashur. “He overall supports the governor and wishes him well. He wants the Republicans to win.”

A détente could serve Perry well. Even as the architect of the last White House, Rove is relatively unknown to the average voter. Engaging in a fight with an ex-White House staffer could make a presidential candidate look small, petty and distracted from what the real focus of any campaign should be: the economy.

“I think the danger for the Perry campaign is allowing that issue to become a sideshow. They don’t need to use Karl Rove as a foil,” said Keith Appell, a Republican strategist. He added, “The environment already lends itself to Perry’s strengths. There’s a bad economy, people are out of work. He’s been a successful governor where new jobs have been created in abundance. That is so much bigger to people than some of these internal political side-shows.”

The article, "Perry and Rove: Texas Feud Takes Center Stage," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Competing to be the ‘Not Romney’ candidate

  1. Closed captioning of: Competing to be the ‘Not Romney’ candidate

    >> must read op-eds here. karl rove has a piece in. he writes because primaries twend to become binary contests they will compete to be the not romney candidates. they can attack each other, romney or mr. obama while hyping their own records or values. twice since saturday, mr. obama 's approval rating hit 39%. his lowest mark so far. no president, in more than 50 years has been reelected with approval ratings so lou. the odds are harry truman came from behind victory in 1948 won't be matched anytime soon.

    >> that's karl rove who won two presidential elections for george bush . he's got a regular column on the wall street journal and appears on the fox news channel . he calls this the most fluid. he's got a history with rick perry dating back to 1998 . there's tension.

    >> what's the story? we hear off camera, the bush people do not like the perry people. what is the story on that?

    >> it's not every level. karl rove , when he brought in dave carney to help him in perry 's race in 1998 there was essential in that race. disagreements about tactics and strategy. perry thought he needed to go more negative. that tension exists, without a doubt. for a lot of insiders, it's fascinating to watch karl weigh in on the race. he's not a huge associate of romney 's. i don't think he thinks michele bachmann is a strong nominee. every time karl talks about the race because of that history, people look for the nuance. he's favorable to perry . the advice he gives to all of them is right. it's what he told all his clients to do. don't focus on battling each other in a primary.

    >> karl rove says go after the incumbent, go after president obama . don't attack each other, even in the primary. what do you think?

    >> he's right. karl rove nailed it. they should be going after president obama if they are a republican candidate, not devouring each other. what you are seeing is more and more bachmann and perry going after each other, battling for that part. ron paul was there first and staked out the anti-fed situation, criticizing perry for that. it's not good strategy, if you are managing the campaign and want to defeat the president. he's pointing out the president's vulnerability.

    >> wes, you can see the back and forth, perry and mitt romney in iowa when they ask questions of each other, they are not fond of one another.

    >> romney is nervous. how well he did in the new hampshire poll, we'll make a point though. karl rove , the president takes comfort in the fact the op-ed there's a fact he's wrong. no president more than 50 years has been reelected with an approval rating so low, it's true with the exception of one, ronald reagan . in 1983 , he had a low approval rating . he wins 49 of the 50 states . at that point, the country was different.

    >> the economy was totally different then. fareed writing, think jobs, not debt. having despaired that obama gave into the tea party on the debt deal, they criticize him. obama should present a distinction in the face of a national employment crisis. perhaps obama realizes the most important factor to help his re-election is a rise in employment. to have any impact on the economy, obama needs proposals to get through congress, not ones that look good on the tv. you can put a lot of things on paper. you have to focus on what he can get through congress.

    >> it's not clear to me he can do that. it puts them in position of running against congress. you mentioned truman running against the do nothing congress. but, if the back job is 16% unemployment, it may not help him. at the end of the day , incup pents rise and fall with what they see.

    >> i doubt it will work. we need economic growth. again, the encouragement of american firms to start hiring. that means move on tax reform .

    >> any package big enough to help the economy and reduce the debt is going to require different dynamic than we had in washington. i don't see anything that happened since then that made it more favorable. i think just the opposite. the hope is the supercommittee, people on that are, for the most part mature and serious people trying to come up with the solution. they are going to have to break the dynamic. i don't think they are currently on a trajectory, a new dynamic.

    >> why would house republicans, particularly tea party republicans want to change their strategy?

    >> i think the only way it happens, if there's so much deficit reduction in it, some of them, not all of them, go for a compromi compromise. in the house, they passed the grand bargain. no real revenue. a tougher vote, more democrats, fewer republicans. john boehner and eric cantor standing up saying this is a great deal for us. it's not a perfect deal.

    >> if you marry short term stimulus, it might work. that's the package the white house

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