Reading Rick Perry tea leaves in State of the State speech

Gov. Rick Perry

It was the usual crowd for Gov. Rick Perry’s annual State of the State address at the capitol – a joint session of the Texas Legislature with House members joined by Senators on chairs set up in the aisle of the House chamber, various state officials, staffers and reporters alongside tourists and various delegations in town for the day, all gathered to hear what the longest-serving governor in Texas history had to say now.

Standing at podium in front of the San Jacinto battle flag, Perry was far from his usual combative self. He reversed previous positions against using the Rainy Day Fund, suggesting he would support diverting $3.7 billion of that money for badly needed water and transportation projects

But the speech he read off the teleprompter last week was devoid of red meat for the ultraconservative set, a marked contrast from the 2011 edition of the speech, which seemed targeted as much toward tea party adherents in Iowa, South Carolina and Georgia as the home crowd.

This time around, there were no references to immigration, voter ID, fetal pain, sonograms or the unborn. He spoke of the Affordable Care Act, eschewing references to Obamacare (though he is clearly not a fan) and avoided the topic of guns and gun control entirely. In education, he spoke of public charter schools and granting scholarships to students in underperforming schools, though some interpreted this as a veiled reference to vouchers that would provide public funding to private and religious schools. Perry seemed to signal just that by citing he was in agreement with Sen. Dan Patrick, the new chairman of the Education Committee who makes no secret of his support for such vouchers.

But such subtlety is hardly standard operating procedure for Perry, who once suggested Texas might secede from the United States and aired an infamous television spot in his short-lived presidential foray where he said, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

The 2013 Perry can still read a speech quite effectively, his voice rising to shout then descending to an elegiac near-whisper as he rolls out rhetorical flourishes like industrial carpeting – by the yard.

“The state of our state is stronger than ever,” he intoned. “We remain the nation’s prime destination for employers and job-seekers alike, and across the state – in classrooms, on assembly lines, in laboratories, on farms and in office buildings – hard working Texans are today turning their dreams into realities. Big and small, dreams do become reality in Texas.”

The questions we heard in the House visitor’s gallery after the speech centered less around the implications of Perry’s changed position on the Rainy Day Fund than on what the tenor of the speech said about his future political plans: Will he or won’t he run for reelection as governor in 2014 and make another attempt for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016?

In the introduction to his speech, Perry heaped fulsome praise on his wife, parents, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Robert Straus while pointedly ignoring Attorney General Greg Abbott, seated in the front row. Abbott has expressed strong interest in running for governor no matter what Perry decides and has more than $18 million in campaign cash on hand attesting to the seriousness of his intent.

Perry has ample cause for concern should he make the race. A new poll by Public Policy Polling released the day of the speech showed Perry as potentially vulnerable in 2014. According to the poll, 47 percent of Republican primary voters said they would prefer a different candidate as their party’s nominee next year. In a head-to-head matchup with undeclared candidate Abbott, Perry’s lead had shrunk to 3 points, 41 percent to 38 percent. His chances in the 2016 presidential derby are even less certain given his dismal performance in the 2012 primaries, still viewed as regrettable and even embarrassing by many in Texas and beyond.

There was even mild disagreement in the House chamber during the speech. When Perry said he wanted to return $1.8 billion in a tax rebate even though he doubted such a plan would be constitutional, a man in the gallery rose and said, “Excuse me, Governor. What about the millions of Texans without health care?”

James Lenard Caldwell, 59, is a member of the Texas Organizing Project, a group that represents low-income Texans and supports the expansion of Medicaid. Dressed in matching green T-shirts, members had chanted outside the capitol before the speech. Caldwell was immediately wrestled from his seat by DPS officers and roughly ejected from the gallery and arrested for interrupting a meeting. He was taken to Travis County Jail and booked on the misdemeanor charge.

Many legislators loudly applauded to prevent Caldwell from being heard and again after Perry quipped he didn’t realize tax rebates were so controversial.

One observer suggested the idea of a tax rebate while indigent health care was being slashed was indeed a legitimate topic of discussion that perhaps superseded Caldwell’s bad manners in interrupting Perry’s recitation. Indeed it was the only pause in the long narrative, although pundits and lawmakers had plenty to say afterward.

“He didn’t talk about so many of the things that were part of his speech two years ago that really were representative of that extremist agenda,” state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, told the San Antonio Express-News. “I think he’s obviously trying to set himself up for a higher office, and perhaps understands that that’s not reflective of what the nation wants to see.”

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, echoed Davis, saying: “He didn’t pick on women. He didn’t pick on immigrants. This is reminiscent of governor who has just been briefed on his latest poll numbers.”

In the end, those poll numbers could say more about future events than all the tea leaves in China.