Texas Gov. Rick Perry poses for a mug shot photo after turning himself in to authorities at the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center Aug. 19, in Austin. / Travis County Sheriff's Office
AUSTIN - It was more pep rally than perp walk.
As Gov. Rick Perry approached the dais Tuesday to give a short statement before turning himself in to authorities on two felony counts of abuse of power, supporters who were gathered outside the Travis County Courthouse showered the governor with cheers and chants. A handful of detractors booed, but they were quickly muted by thunderous applause.
It was playbook Perry.
Faced with one of the most serious threats to his long political career, Perry and his legal team have chosen to come out swinging, denouncing the charges in public appearances and warning that his indictment threatens not just him but the American way of governing. A grand jury indicted Perry on Friday on two felony counts of abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant for withholding millions from a public integrity unit.
"This issue is far bigger than me," Perry said Tuesday, before being fingerprinted and having his mug shot taken. "It's about the rule of law. It's about the Constitution that allows not just the governor but every citizen to speak their mind free of political interference or legal intimidation."
The indictment stems from the drunken-driving arrest last year of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who was caught on video berating officers after her arrest. When she ignored Perry's call for her resignation, the Republican governor vetoed $7.5 million in state funds for the public integrity unit, which Lehmberg, a Democrat, oversees. The criminal charges he faces carry combined maximum sentences of more than 100 years.
Now Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history at nearly 14 years, stands at the most crucial crossroads of his career: He could either catapult past the controversy into heightened national prominence or see the legal wrangling blow up his career.
Perry, who seems likely to run for president again in 2016, had worked hard to move out of the shadow of his humiliating "oops" moment during his 2012 presidential run, when, during a televised debate, he forgot one of three public institutions he threatened to shutter if elected.
But in true Perry fashion, he has taken the fight to his detractors. In the year-and-a-half I've covered Perry and Texas, I've witnessed the governor's resolute and often controversial management style, whether it's slashing Medicaid or signing anti-abortion legislation or dispatching National Guard troops to the border. His latest actions appear no different.
"Perry is going on the offensive," says Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. "He's not disappearing. He's not holing himself up. He's really doubling down."
Just how effective that strategy is leading up to the 2016 presidential race remains to be seen.
If local reaction is any measure, the issue could fizzle well before the Iowa caucuses. Even in urban Democratic strongholds, such as Houston and Austin, where Perry is often vilified, news of the indictment was greeted with half-shrugs. No pitchforks. No rallies calling for his resignation.
And his potential rivals in the upcoming Republican presidential primaries, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, have lined up to publicly back Perry in this fight.
Now, it's up to his formidable legal team to steer the case through the courts as quickly as possible and have him acquitted before the start of the Republican primaries.
If that happens, Texas' longest-serving governor can only wait and see how often the words "Rick Perry" and "indictment" are uttered together in debates in Iowa and New Hampshire - and what impact that ultimately has on his presidential dreams.
Jervis is an Austin-based reporter for USA TODAY
Read the original story: Voices: Rick Perry comes out fighting