AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Gov. Rick Perry's legacy has rarely been mentioned on statewide GOP campaign trails this year, and the party's nominee to replace him has questioned some of Perry's signature achievements. Amid his record tenure, fellow Republicans have even mulled term limits.
But just when Perry was feeling like governor non grata, a felony indictment accusing him of abusing his power has energized Texas conservatives, who claim it's a politically motivated attack in an important election year.
It's also put the spotlight back on Perry, who is trying to rehabilitate his political image before leaving office in January and convince would-be 2016 Republican primary voters across America he's worth a second look following an embarrassing White House bid three years ago.
Perry already earned favorable marks in conservative circles for ordering 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border amid an influx of unaccompanied immigrant children. Some political observers now speculate that, if he can emerge unscathed from the criminal case against him, it could be a good gauge of his presidential viability.
"If he beats this, it's really going to help him, especially on the right," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's campaign manager Brendan Steinhauser, who helped organize a gathering of about 100 cheering GOP activists as Perry arrived for booking last week.
Perry, the first Texas governor to be indicted since 1917, faces two felony counts for making good on a threat to veto funds to a state prosecution unit that investigates official corruption if the Democratic district attorney didn't resign after a drunken driving conviction.
Top Texas Republicans have questioned why he'd be indicted for exercising his veto authority. Support has come from lieutenant gubernatorial hopeful and state Sen. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Greg Abbott, its gubernatorial nominee. Even U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz — a possible 2016 presidential rival — says he's standing with Perry.
"The party was in the midst of a changing of the guard," Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri said. "But this particular situation has brought the focus back to Governor Perry and kind of reminded everyone why we like him."
Indeed, a swaggering Perry came out swinging against the indictment. When he was booked and fingerprinted last week at an Austin courthouse, he grinned in his mug shot, then cheekily tweeted about going for ice cream.
That Republicans would close ranks behind one of their own isn't surprising, but that the case would energize so many people was harder to predict — especially since, as Perry has concentrated on positioning himself for 2016 with frequent out-of-state travel, key GOP leaders have targeted some of his pet projects.
Perry's chief selling point is keeping Texas' economy booming, yet Abbott and Patrick have both expressed concerns about incentive funds used to distribute millions to private firms as Perry hoped to lure job creators to Texas or boost promising startups. Meanwhile the Republican-controlled state Legislature last year discussed term limits, which would have made it impossible to hold on to power for nearly 14 years like Perry has.
Perry faces up to 109 years in prison for coercion and official oppression following his veto of $7.5 million in funding for the state's Public Integrity Unit, which is overseen by Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg. The governor said Lehmberg had lost the public's confidence and demanded that she resign or lose the funding. When Lehmberg refused, Perry kept his promise — drawing an ethics complaint from a left-leaning government watchdog group.
The governor has called the case against him as a political ploy, and the grand jury that indicted him was seated in Austin, a heavily Democratic city.
But Democrats note that Perry's veto came as the public integrity unit was investigating the state's $3 billion cancer-fighting agency, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, which was a key Perry achievement before drawing bipartisan criticism for improper spending, lax oversight and lucrative awards to private companies that skirted required scrutiny. Perry's lawyers have produced an affidavit from a former Public Integrity Unit investigator, saying that no one in the governor's office was a target of that investigation.
Texas Democratic Party executive director Will Hailer says the cancer agency case exposes official corruption that's festered because the GOP hasn't lost a statewide election in 20 years.
"Republicans have to double down on Governor Perry because of what the public integrity unit was looking into," he said. "If the house comes falling down, it falls down on all of them."
Meanwhile, the governor has resumed his busy travel schedule, visiting New Hampshire, home to the nation's first presidential primary, this weekend.
Court appearances look unavoidable once he's back home. But if the current trend holds, that might not be all bad.
"Anytime you're defending against a perceived political attack, people do rally," Steinhauser said.