By John Whitesides
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Among political insiders in the Texas state capital, one thing is considered certain: Governor Rick Perry will jump into the Republican presidential race in the next few weeks.
But what happens then, in a campaign where many Republicans are hungry for an alternative to vulnerable frontrunner Mitt Romney, is much less predictable.
Perry's entry in the 2012 race would shake up a field of potential challengers to President Barack Obama that has drawn yawns from Republican activists, potentially elevating him near the top of a pack that also includes conservative rivals Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty.
But Perry, who favors cowboy boots and once boasted he shot a coyote while jogging, could face big hurdles making up ground in fund raising and expanding his appeal to a broader electorate with fresh and often unfavorable memories of another former Texas governor -- George W. Bush.
"My belief is he will run," said Austin lawyer Bill Crocker, general counsel to the Republican National Committee and a Perry friend.
"People keep telling me 'We've got to have him in the race,'" Crocker said. "We need somebody who can win. He is easily the most attractive campaigner we've got.
Perry, a staunch social conservative, is also popular with Tea Party fiscal conservatives. In an election dominated by the troubled economy and persistent unemployment, he heads a state with a strong record of job growth.
His supporters say that will be a formidable combination that could bridge the gap between the party's right wing and establishment center.
"He's getting a lot of people calling him because they think he can fill that void," said Republican lobbyist Cliff Johnson, a Perry hunting buddy who shared an apartment with him when they first served together in the Texas legislature.
'THE GUY TO BEAT'
"If he gets in, he's the guy to beat," Johnson said in an interview in his office, steps from the state capitol building. "He's a voracious campaigner and he's a true conservative."
Even Perry's critics give him points for ability.
"The last thing anybody should do is underestimate his campaign skills," said Texas House Democrat Garnet Coleman of Houston. "His only objective is to strengthen himself politically, and he's not afraid to do or say something controversial if it brings him a bigger audience."
Perry's longstanding opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage, along with his fierce animosity to Washington, gives him the sort of credibility among conservatives that often eludes Romney, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts.
Even before entering the race, Perry is running second to Romney in several national Republican polls, with Bachmann his main challenger for conservative votes.
"He would be a hot ticket in the short term, for sure," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. "Whether he could be competitive in a general election is a big question."
Perry, the state's longest serving governor, was raised in a small west Texas town. He was elected as a Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives and eventually became lieutenant governor after switching parties. When Bush won the White House in 2000, Perry moved into the governor's office.
He drew notice in Washington last year when he swept to a third re-election victory, an unprecedented feat in Texas.
"The people who get elected in Texas are characters, and Rick Perry is a character," said Bill Miller, a lobbyist and former political consultant who works with both parties.
Perry has been traveling the country gauging his support for more than a month. Top strategist David Carney said no final decisions have been made as a team of about a dozen Perry advisers and supporters pores through logistical questions.
"It's just the practicality of it -- how much time will be needed to raise money and how much money can be raised?" Carney said.
Perry would enter the race with some clear advantages -- he would be the only governor in the field from the South, a regional Republican stronghold, and the state's dynamic job growth gives him a popular talking point.
But critics say many of those jobs are low-wage, and the Texas record also includes heavy cuts in education, low levels of public service and high rates of uninsured.
Perry also would draw constant comparisons to Bush, the last Texas governor in the White House, raising the possibility of "Texas fatigue" among voters. The irony is the two men have a sometimes antagonistic relationship, made worse by Perry's criticism of Bush's heavy federal spending as president.
Once in the race, Perry is certain to face questions about his comments at a 2009 Tea Party rally that seemed to entertain the notion that Texas could secede from the union.
"We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it, but if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come of that," he said.
Carney said Perry rejected the concept of secession but was echoing the frustration with Washington felt by voters.