Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered into the Republican presidential pool on a litter carried by conservatives and Tea Party Movement activists, shot to the top and hasn't yielded much ground since.
His Web site greets visitors with: "It's time to get America working again." And he holds Texas -- under his watch for 10 years -- as a model of employment.
A bio clip on his Web site notes Perry "signed historic tax cuts and some of the strongest lawsuit reforms in the country. Since June '09, more than 40 percent of all net new jobs in America have been created in Texas."
"Perry is in sync with the dominant [conservative] faction of the party on many issues," said political commentator Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. "That's one reason he moved up so quickly."
Perry has a "commanding presence" in public and is charming as well, Schier said, and his campaign is well funded.
Perry grew up in Paint Creek in west Texas and was the first generation of his family to attend college, enrolling in Texas A&M University and earning a degree in animal science, his Web site biography said. Upon graduation, Perry took a commission in the U.S. Air Force, flying C-130s before being honorably discharged in 1977 with the rank of captain.
Perry, a Regan Democrat, entered politics in 1984, when he won a seat in the Texas House, serving three terms. He switched to the Republican Party near the end of his final term, before running statewide for Agriculture Commissioner in 1990, He was re-elected in 1994.
Four years later, Perry became the first Republican lieutenant governor in more than a century. He became governor in December 2000 when George W. Bush resigned the office to become president. Since then, Perry has won three full terms.
Perry and wife Anita have a son and a daughter.
Perry is the opposite of his nearest challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was born in a tony Detroit suburb, earned a law degree from Harvard and was on a business fast track.
Perry recently told an audience in Iowa he learned "the values of hard work and thrift and faith" while growing up in Paint Creek, The Washington Post reported.
"The American dream was available to me because America was never set up as a class society," he said.
"It's a whole package," David Carney, Perry's chief strategist, told the Post. "This is not manufactured. That's what makes Rick Perry who Rick Perry is."
Perry's take-no-prisoners style and brash comments breathed life into a presidential nominating process in which "other," "undecided" or "unnamed candidate" captured a chuck of support in various polls.
His comments -- particularly in his book, "Fed Up!" -- also sometimes create a sticky wicket. And on the campaign trail he's been questioned and criticized for some of his positions, both from the left and right.
"He's a neophyte in presidential politics," Schier said. "He has not shown well in the debates and has not shown well [on issues such as] immigration, mandatory vaccinations, things of that sort."
To maintain his front-runner status, Perry has to do better as a spokesman for the party and defend his positions well, Schier said.
"He hasn't presented his own positions cogently," he said. "All this is causing second thoughts about whether he'll be electable in 2012."
Among his more provocative stances providing fodder for his opponents are his calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie," providing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants and his controversial directive that pre-adolescent girls be vaccinated against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. He's also taken shots for holding Texas as an employment beacon while the rest of the nation is mired in joblessness.
However, the Texas unemployment rate hit 8.5 percent in August, up from 8.4 percent in July and the state's highest rate since June 1987, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
Texas Workforce Commission data indicate the state lost 1,300 jobs in August. Texas picked up 8,100 private-sector jobs, but those job gains were more than offset by losses in the public sector.
Perry defends is "Ponzi" statement, telling Time magazine: "I don't get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken. … If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it's a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it's broken -- they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation."
Concerning providing in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, Perry told Time that matter doesn't rise to the federal level.
"If you don't like that in Arizona, if you don't like that in Massachusetts, that's your call," Perry said. "But in the state of Texas, we made the decision that on in-state tuition for young people -- and frankly we don't care what the sound of their last name is -- we're going to help them to become contributing members of society."
He does say that border security has to be more than an "intellectual exercise" and that building a barrier fence along the U.S.-Mexico border is "the easy answer."
"I think it's a cop-out for anyone who's actually been on the border," he said. "What does work is strategic fencing in your metropolitan areas, having the boots on the ground. We are woefully understaffed on that border."
While saying he should have taken the vaccination issue to lawmakers instead of using his executive powers, Perry said during the Tampa, Fla., debate in mid-September, "you may criticize me about the way that I went about it, but at the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life."
Texas political experts note that local media have raised questions about Perry's, but others acknowledge local scrutiny and national scrutiny are two different animals, the Post said.
"There seems to be a wealth of incidents that Rick Perry is going to have to explain," said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who worked for Romney's 2008 campaign and President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election but is unaffiliated in this race. "He's an opposition researcher's dream in that sense."