Pat Sullivan, File, Associated Press
FILE - In this Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 file photo, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at a national prayer rally in Houston. A nationally televised debate, a test vote in Iowa and a candidacy by Perry — should he decide to seek the GOP nomination as many insiders, activists and party leaders expect — could shake up the Republican presidential race in the coming days.
AUSTIN, Texas — Leaning toward a full-fledged presidential run, Texas Gov. Rick Perry will visit at least two early primary states — South Carolina and New Hampshire — on Saturday at the same time most of his would-be opponents are competing in an important test vote in Iowa.
In recent weeks, the conservative Texan has inched closer to a run, privately telling told GOP donors, leaders and activists that he was likely to enter the race for the GOP nomination. His upcoming speaking schedule — and the timing of it on the day of the Iowa straw poll — confirms as much.
Republican officials close to Perry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose his plans, said it's all but certain the governor will run, and his schedule is intended to put to rest doubt about his bid. That said, one cautioned that nothing is final until Perry says he's running.
Perry's staff refused to discuss his plans beyond issuing a statement from spokesman Mark Miner: "The governor is not a candidate for office at this time. With President Obama's dismal economic record, and Texas' success in creating jobs and balancing our budget, Gov. Perry continues to consider a potential run for the White House. Stay tuned."
Perry's advisers have been laying the groundwork for a campaign in early primary states and honing a strategy. Draft movements filled with grassroots volunteers have sprung up in numerous states, including Iowa, where supporters are trying to get an organization in place that would allow Perry to compete in the leadoff caucuses early next year despite a relatively late entrance into the field.
Perry has met privately with donors in Texas and has said in private conversations with Iowa GOP leaders and others that he would likely mount a caucus campaign. His senior political consultant, David Carney, has begun scouting for potential staff in Iowa and elsewhere. And Perry has strategically given media interviews to news outlets in early primary states over the past few weeks.
All that has left little doubt about his intentions. Still, Perry has been publicly coy.
His entrance into the field could dramatically shake up the contest because the conservative Texan could attract both social and economic conservatives at a time when the GOP electorate is unsettled with the current slate of candidates. Many have been campaigning for months and are trying to break out of the pack to emerge as the top challenger to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
Perry allies argue that he provides the full package for those in the party looking to take down Romney; they say Perry is both credible on social issues and strong on economic issues given Texas' recent job growth and could provide a strong contrast to Romney, a former business executive with a jobs message who has reversed positions on some issues social conservatives hold dear.
Over the weekend, Perry sent a strong message to cultural conservatives by holding a national prayer rally in Houston. It attracted roughly 30,000 evangelicals who spent a day praying, singing and testifying about their faith.
Texas' longest-serving governor has long been scheduled to speak to a bloggers convention in Charleston, S.C., on Saturday, instead of being in Ames, Iowa, for the straw poll.
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His office announced Monday that he planned to appear in New Hampshire that day as well, a disclosure that fueled speculation that he was getting ready to announce an official campaign.
His aides wouldn't disclose details of the New Hampshire visit, but a New Hampshire GOP operative says Perry will attend a house party at the home of state Rep. Pam Tucker in Greenland, N.H. The operative was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
Perry plans to deliver a speech to the Alabama GOP on Friday.
Liz Sidoti in Washington and Steve Peoples in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.