Within days, Gov. Rick Perry may provide Texans with the answer to a question that has fueled the state's most pervasive political guessing game -- whether he will seek another term or close out his tenure as the state's longest-serving chief executive.
Even his close associates insist that they don't know what Perry will do, although growing speculation in the news media and among political insiders tilts toward the prospect that he will choose not to seek re-election to clear the way for Attorney General Greg Abbott as his potential successor.
The Republican governor told Bloomberg News in New York last week that he will decide on his political future by July 1, igniting renewed chatter back in Austin.
Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman in the governor's office, said the decision will focus on his future as governor and will not immediately address the question of a second presidential bid. She also noted the distinction between a "decision" and "an announcement," raising the possibility that Perry may not immediately disclose his intentions after he makes up his mind.
Perry has served as governor since Dec. 21, 2000, moving up from lieutenant governor after George W. Bush left the governor's office to become president. He has since been elected to an unprecedented three four-year terms, but his winning political record disintegrated in 2012 when he waged an ill-fated five-month-long bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Almost immediately after bowing out of the presidential race following the South Carolina primary, Perry said through a spokesman that he would consider re-election to a fourth full term as governor as well as a second run for the presidency. He has repeatedly said he would announce his political plans in June, but the July 1 date marks the first time he has set a specific deadline.
Jim Lee, a Houston investor who has served as Perry's campaign finance chairman for his gubernatorial and presidential campaign, said Perry "is spending a lot of time with people both in the state and out of the state seeking advice."
"I think the decision is being made," Lee said in a telephone interview during a trip to France last week. "I don't think it's made yet."
Perry's upcoming announcement on his options as governor will enable scores of upward-aspiring politicians to cement their political plans after months of waiting. A Perry decision not to seek re-election will set off a statewide game of musical chairs as candidates seek higher office.
Perry's decision is presumably most crucial to Abbott, a Perry ally who has served as attorney general for more than 10 years and is widely considered the Republican front-runner in next year's gubernatorial race. Abbott has more than $18 million in his campaign treasury, the most in Texas politics, according to The Texas Tribune.
Political lobbyist and consultant Bill Miller of Austin said he believes that Perry will disclose his plans immediately after the Legislature's special session ends Tuesday and is "going to announce before July 1 that he's not running for re-election."
"He won't announce his rest-of-his-life plans at that time. He's just going to say he's not running," Miller said. "As soon as he does that, then everybody from Greg Abbott on down starts announcing for office. So the dominoes fall, people move on, it's an end of era."
Miller said he believes a second presidential race is "a very real possibility, and if I were a betting man, I think he would return to that ring one more time."
Miller said he is basing his predictions on a "combination of factors," including "knowledge" and "intuition," but he emphasized that "it is not Rick Perry calling me."
If Perry decides not to seek re-election, he would retire in January of 2015 after just over 15 years as Texas' 47th governor. A successful re-election bid would keep him in office for 19 years, until January 2019.
In interviews last week, Perry's associates used similar phrases in describing his approach to his latest political decision, saying he is keeping his "cards close to the vest" as he discusses his options with a select few, including Texas first lady Anita Perry and other family members.
"Anybody saying they know what the governor is going to do is most likely wrong," said public affairs consultant Mark Miner, Perry's former press secretary. "It's a choice he and his family are going to make."
Teresa Spears, a senior adviser who has been with Perry since the former Democratic legislator switched parties in 1989 to run for Texas agriculture commissioner, said Perry's tendency to keep his political thinking closely guarded has been a trademark since his earliest days in politics.
"I've been with him a long time and I have learned not to speculate about what this governor will do," she said. "I know he's looking at all the different variables. I don't think he's ruled anything out."
Fort Worth attorney Ralph Duggins, one of the governor's appointees to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, said, "A lot of people are encouraging him to look hard at the presidential race and a lot of people are encouraging him to run again, but I don't have any idea what he and Anita are going to do."
Perry's performance during the 140-day regular session and the subsequent special session offered few concrete clues to his political future.
Depending on who was talking, hallway speculation in the Capitol had him either toughening his conservative credentials to shore up support with conservative Republican primary voters, or moderating his political persona to reach beyond Texas in a presidential race.
A recent poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune suggested that new U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz may be pushing aside Perry as the pre-eminent conservative in Texas, showing that the popular tea party-backed senator would beat Perry and other big-name candidates in a hypothetical race for the 2016 Republican nomination.
But Perry fared better in a potential head-to-head match up for re-election in 2014 against Abbott, who got less than half the support Perry got from self-identified Republican primary voters, the Tribune reported.
Only 25 percent of Texas voters _ Republicans and Democrats _ are ready to give Perry another term, saying they would vote for him if he seeks re-election in 2014. Nearly 2 in 5 _ 38 percent _ said they would vote against him, and 31 percent said they would wait and see who is running against him, according to the poll.
Perry supporters say the state's surging economic growth that has taken place on Perry's watch would continue to be a formidable weapon in any future political undertaking.
"There's an ash heap of people who have underestimated Rick Perry, and you do that at your own peril," Lee said. "His leadership has put Texas in this remarkable position, and based on that, he has something to offer beyond the state."
Lee, whom Perry recently appointed to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, said he is encouraging the governor to make another run for the presidency in 2016, a decision that Lee said is probably more than a year away.
Lee said he believes that Perry would have a strong political base for a presidential campaign even if he decides not to see re-election as governor, pointing out that Mitt Romney was a former governor of Massachusetts when he sought the presidency in 2012.
"I don't think it's critical one way or another," Lee said. "The presidential race will get serious about the time he would leave office. I think he'd be in a good position either way.
"Being an officeholder is important, but you can't forget the fact that he's been the longest-serving governor in Texas history" as well as one of the longest-serving nationally, Lee said. If Perry does run, Lee added, "He'll be well-prepared. The governor would have as good a shot as anybody."
Spears, who has been at Perry's side nearly a quarter-century, said she and other supporters are prepared to follow the governor's lead and will "hit the ground running" if he chooses another term.
"He has a lot of folks who have been with him for a very long time," Spears said. "Whatever he decides to do, we'll be ready to go."
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