POLITICS
08/17/2011 02:31 EDT | Updated 10/17/2011 05:12 EDT

Despite similarities, there's no love lost between Bush and Perry

WASHINGTON - Texas Gov. Rick Perry possesses no shortage of aesthetic similarities to George W. Bush, likenesses that could sink his chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination thanks to an enduring American disdain for the former president.

Both men are congenial Texans, fond of cowboy hats and going for runs in the wilderness. Both owe Karl Rove a debt of gratitude for their political successes. And both, apparently, have a tendency to say the wrong thing on the national stage, if Perry's missteps this week are any indication.

Ironically, however, there's no love lost between the Bush and Perry camps. The antagonism dates back more than a decade, when Bush was gearing up to run for president.

Perry was a state Democratic legislator for several years when Rove, a political strategist attempting to establish a powerful Republican machine in Texas, convinced him to switch parties in 1989. A year earlier, Perry — the man who said on Wednesday that he doubted global warming — had worked on Democrat Al Gore's presidential campaign.

As a newly minted Republican, Perry was the state's agriculture commissioner for several years before deciding, in 1998, to run for lieutenant governor, an elected position in Texas. But he faced a tough battle against Democrat John Sharp, and wanted to fight dirty.

Rove, who was hard at work orchestrating Bush's run for president, was dead set against such tactics, thinking they'd hurt Bush's aspirations, said Cal Jillson, a politics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"Perry was in this very hard-fought race and believed he needed to go negative to beat Sharp," Jillson recalls.

"But Rove said: 'Don't do it,' because he was concerned it would hurt Bush. And Perry and his team, they were angry. They thought that Bush and Rove were willing to let Perry lose in order to build up Bush, that Bush's political interests dominated Perry's. That's where the bad blood began, and it persists."

And how. The antagonism has only intensified in recent years as Perry, who became governor when Bush was elected president in 2000, has publicly questioned his former boss's bona fides as a fiscal conservative, accused him of going on "a big-government binge" as commander-in-chief and played down some of W's accomplishments in Texas as he's compared them to his own.

The powerful Bush family, a force to be reckoned with in the Republican party, registered its displeasure most publicly when it backed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's gubernatorial primary challenge of Perry last year.

Perry handily defeated the senator anyway after portraying her as a big-spending Washington insider.

Crossing the Bush family may already be causing Perry problems on the campaign trail.

In a New York Times piece earlier this year about the rivalry, close Bush associates warned Perry against criticizing the man affectionately known as Dubya.

"If you're really trying to be the nominee and want to go the distance, you just don't want the former president of the United States and his people working against you," one told the Times.

Rove, Perry's one-time mentor, said as much this week in one of several criticisms of the governor.

"Why he falls into this pattern of sounding like he's being dismissive of the former president is not smart politics, either strategically or tactically," Rove said.

The Republican strategist has been among Perry's harshest critics this week, particularly in the wake of the governor's comments about Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke.

Perry called Bernanke "treasonous" and "treacherous" for his efforts to jump-start the U.S. economy, and said Texans would treat him "pretty ugly."

"It was a very unfortunate comment," Rove said on Fox News. "You don't accuse the chairman of the Federal Reserve of being a traitor to his country and being guilty of treason and suggesting that we treat him pretty ugly in Texas _ that's not, again, a presidential statement."

Pete Wehner, a former Bush White House aide, also publicly chastised Perry, writing in Commentary magazine that the governor's use of the word "treasonous" was "the kind of blustering, unthinking comment that Perry’s critics expect of him."

Jillson said it's understandable that Perry would want to distance himself from Bush as the U.S. continues to deal with the economic fallout of a presidency that saw two monstrously expensive wars and a national debt that ticked into the trillions.

But paradoxically, he predicts, any Bush-Perry comparisons will ultimately favour Bush.

"The cartoonish hyperbole that Perry has brought to the race — those sorts of things are said in Texas all the time, just over-the-top rhetoric, and people here just try to ignore it," he said in an interview Wednesday.

"But it shows the distinctions between him and Bush. Bush was from a very elite New England clan. He could do the west Texas thing with ease, and he loves Texas, but he also knows what fork to use and he has manners. With Perry, there's no polish there. He's a much rougher cut, and that's not going to play well on the national stage."

He predicted that Perry's run for president may even help repair Bush's legacy.

"It's the best thing that ever happened to Bush. As people watch Perry floundering around in Iowa, it may not make them want Bush back, but they'll realize that the man has some class. He has a sheen of civility about him that Perry does not possess."

Fergus Cullen, a Republican pundit who was once head of the New Hampshire Republican Party, drove an hour on Wednesday to watch Perry speak in Bedford, N.H.

Cullen says he's not sold on Perry yet, adding there is "certainly Texas fatigue within the Republican party, and that's especially true in the northeast."

And even though Bush and Perry may be far different politicians on several fronts, Cullen said, the general electorate will likely only see the similarities.