Tea Party faithful wonder if Perry walks the walk
* Helped Al Gore in 1988 failed presidential bid
* Praised Hillary Clinton's healthcare reform efforts
* Switched from Democrat to Republican in 1989
By Kristina Cooke and Edith Honan
NEW YORK, Aug 10 (Reuters) - Rick Perry has been widely touted as a Republican presidential candidate who could appeal Tea Party voters, but some in the anti-tax movement wonder if his record as Texas governor stacks up to his rhetoric.
After all, they say, there are reasons to think he's a spendthrift. He once campaigned for Democrat Al Gore, reviled by the Tea Party for being Bill Clinton's vice president and for his campaigning on climate change, and he even spoke kindly about Hillary Clinton's healthcare reform efforts.
Then there is the issue that he was once a Democrat.
So as Perry plans the 2012 White House bid many observers expect he may announce as early as this week, some Tea Party faithful wonder what to make of him.
"They're vetting, they want to know if he is for real," Dallas Tea Party leader Katrina Pierson, said, adding she has fielded questions about Perry's record from Tea Party members as far flung as California, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Tea Party voters could have a big impact on the Republican nomination if they vote heavily in early U.S. primaries, which historically see low voter turn-out.
Perry "speaks the Tea Party language," said Sean Theriault, a political science professor at the University of Texas. But such rhetoric could alienate independent voters, who play a crucial role in U.S. presidential elections.
"I think the Republican nomination for him would be much easier than the general election," Theriault said.
Perry, who followed George W. Bush as Texas governor in 2000 after Bush was elected to the White House, has earned headlines for saying that perhaps Texas should leave the United States and for holding a prayer rally this month that drew 30,000 people.
He was an early booster of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement, which takes its name from the 1773 Boston tax rebellion against the British.
More recently, Perry took a hard line against raising the U.S. debt limit, saying he did not think the government would default if it was not raised in time -- a view most economists disagreed with, but which appealed to Tea Party types.
Perry also told televangelist James Robison in May that Americans risked becoming "slaves" to government as a result of excessive spending.
"I think we are going through these difficult times for a purpose to bring us back to those biblical principles of you don't spend all the money," he said.
WHICH RICK PERRY?
But even as he rails against wasteful spending by Washington, federal dollars accounted for nearly 37 percent of Texas' spending -- one of the highest rates in the nation -- RBC Capital Markets said in a report this year.
Perry has been accused of wasteful spending himself, including using as much as $10,000 per month of taxpayer money to pay for a luxury rental home while the Governor's Mansion was being rebuilt after a fire.
Two of the governor's biggest initiatives have flopped: the $150 billion Trans Texas Corridor, which ranchers said would have paved too much of their land, and a 2007 executive order, overturned by the legislature, that would have forced teenage girls to be vaccinated against cervical cancer.
Pierson has shared her doubts about Perry with out-of-state Tea Party voters -- many of whom call her because they don't trust the media. "They want to check facts with me," she said.
In her view, Perry's budget is balanced only on paper.
And then there is the issue of his politics. Perry was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984 when the Lone Star state was a Democratic stronghold. He served as a conservative Democrat in the state legislature until switching to the Republican Party in 1989.
While a Democrat, he was the Texas chairman for Gore's failed 1988 presidential bid. And even after he became a Republican, in a 1993 letter he praised Hillary Clinton's healthcare reform efforts while she was first lady as "most commendable."
Tea Party activists interviewed by Reuters voiced most enthusiasm for former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who has been coy as to whether she will run. They were also curious about Perry, but said they knew less about him.
For that reason, Perry's late entry into the race could hurt his chances in early-voting states such as Iowa.
"A lot of people don't know much about him and it's tough to actually vet him," said Iowa Tea Party leader Ryan Rhodes. "He has multiple records."
Rhodes also echoed a line taken by Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips in a recent blog post: "It's a question of which Rick Perry shows up." (Additional reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Mark Egan and Xavier Briand)
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