The contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination marked their turf at a debate in New Hampshire Monday night, but one man who could change the landscape and is keeping the guessing game going was missing -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Though he hasn't made his plans clear, the staunch conservative is said to be seriously considering a presidential bid and is being pushed by many of his supporters who feel there is need for a Washington outsider in the current mix.
The conservative Daily Caller reported last week that "serious preparations" are being made for a presidential bid and that Perry's close allies are reaching out to contacts in key primary states.
Perry added fuel to the fire last month when he said he would consider entering the race.
"I'm going to think about it," he said. "I think about a lot of things."
Perry also told the Texas Tribune Tuesday that he was "giving it some thought."
"There are a lot of people calling and saying, 'Hey, we would like you to consider getting into the race,'" he said.
The statements are a stark reversal from his previous denials. The longest serving governor in Texas history, who survived a close gubernatorial race last election cycle, flatly said in November that he doesn't want to be president of the United States.
Speculation further mounted last week when Perry's longtime advisers, Dave Carney and Ron Johnson, quit Newt Gingrich's campaign along with other senior aides. The two played a critical role in Perry's re-election campaign, and their resignations are building buzz that they could be headed down to Texas to help their old boss.
Perry's biggest advantage and disadvantage alike is that he has always separated himself from Washington insiders. He's been a leading critic of the Obama administration's policies and hasn't been afraid to assail policies of his own party members.
At a time when discontent with Washington lawmakers is high, that trait could set him apart in the crowded GOP field. Alternatively, it could alienate him from the Republican establishment that will be crucial in getting out voters in the primaries, where it really matters.
Perry enjoys heavy support among two influential groups -- the tea party movement and evangelicals -- but it remains unclear whether that would be enough to buoy him to victory against candidates like Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, who some feel may be able to attract a broader range of conservatives.
Perry's supporters say the longtime Texas governor, who filled George W. Bush's position when he moved to Washington, also stands out in the GOP field with his record on the economy. Texas has added more than 700,000 private-sector jobs in the last decade, more than any other state, according to The Business Journals. The state's unemployment rate is 7.7 percent, less than the national average of 9.1 percent.
Compared to fellow heads of states Pawlenty and Romney, Perry also has a longer record on issues close to conservatives' hearts, such as immigration, foreign policy and abortion, and his leadership skills have been tested during disasters, his supporters say.
"He's got an outstanding record as governor. If you look at the sessions that are going through right now, Texas will balance the budget without a tax increase ... and that's all to the governor's credit," said Texas political consultant Reggie Bashur, who served as an adviser to Bush when he was governor. "In a Republican primary he would be strong both on the economic and social issues."
Though he may not be a Washington insider, Perry has strong fundraising prowess that could be second only to Romney's, should the Texas governor decide to jump into the fray. He serves as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, a position that gives him considerable inroads into key donor groups. And given the number of years he has spent in politics, Perry has built strong relationships with influential party members.
But Perry's long record also opens him up to steep criticism. Texas' budget shortfall has ballooned under Perry, and some estimate it to be upwards of $27 billion, considerably higher than New York's deficit problem and nearly on par with California's. Without tax increases, balancing the budget would come at the expense of education and programs for the poor, like Medicare, critics charge.
Perry also has to deal with the label of double standards. Though he assailed Obama's federal stimulus plan, Perry didn't reject the funds for his own state.
His opponents also point to some of his more brash remarks, such as calling for secession for Texas from the rest of the country or praying for rain in drought-stricken Texas.
With campaigns already under way and heating up, Perry may not have the luxury of time to announce his decision. Candidates like Pawlenty, Romney and Newt Gingrich are already closing in on key states like New Hampshire, and the field is quickly becoming narrower.
"I think that the process is -- of running for president is so brutal and the infrasructure that's required to run, to set up campaigns, build networks and run in places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, all the way through Florida is pretty extensive, so I find it increasingly hard to believe that if a candidate waits any longer, that their chances are going to remain very good," Republican strategist Kevin Madden said. "That has to do with just the process part of it."
"The field does still have an opening because there does seem to be a desire for -- by voters for more options, but I think that time is rapidly coming to a close," he added.