FILE - This Aug. 8, 2014, file photo shows Governor Rick Perry as he speaks at the 2014 Red State Gathering, in Fort Worth, Texas. Perry has been indicted for abuse of power after carrying out a threat to veto funding for state public corruption prosecutors. The Republican governor is accused of abusing his official powers by publicly promising to veto $7.5 million for the state public integrity unit at the Travis County District Attorney's office. He was indicted by an Austin grand jury Friday, Aug. 15. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
He was fingerprinted. He has a mug shot.
He is under indictment on charges of abusing his political power. That could bring a maximum 109 years in prison.
And those facts may actually make Texas Gov. Rick Perry a stronger contender to be the GOP nominee in the 2016 presidential election, some political strategists say.
The charges are that Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, leveraged his power to try to oust a Democratic district attorney convicted of drunk driving.
Perry has formally pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges and waived an arraignment that had been set for Friday.
Perry is displaying a tough, defiant exterior in the face of the national-headline-making indictment – the first for a Texas governor since 1917. No sooner did he get his mug shot – for which he smiled broadly – than he then stopped for vanilla ice cream after leaving the police department and, for good measure, tweeted a photo of himself with the treat.
It may be the best thing that’s happened to Rick Perry.
- Whit Ayers, GOP pollster
Then he spirited off to Washington, D.C., where, on Thursday, he is delivering a major speech at the Heritage Foundation about the border crisis and how it's affecting Texas.
The governor has seen an outpouring of support, even from unexpected sources such as liberal political figures and media organizations. They call the charges and indictment a political stunt by Democrats in Texas, and conservatives see the evil intentions of liberals being clearly exposed.
Indeed, conservative groups are rallying around Perry.
He has been picked to headline the South Carolina GOP fundraiser on Aug. 27.
The Conservative Action Fund sent out a mass e-mail Wednesday with the subject line: “Rick Perry is under attack, and he needs our immediate help."
“You see, a handful of extreme liberal Democrats in Texas have decided to take the law into their own hands," the body of the message read, "and prosecute Rick Perry simply because he exercised his perfectly legal veto powers to block funding for a disgraced local prosecutor's office."
The email asks for contributions to Perry's political action committee, “to show Governor Perry that conservatives from around the country support him.” And it asks supporters to sign a “Stand With Rick Perry” petition, with the goal of getting 100,000 signatures by Friday. “You don’t have to be from Texas to support Governor Perry against the kangaroo court proceedings being orchestrated by the crooks in a small liberal enclave in Texas.”
Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster in Washington, D.C., said the subtext of a liberal area’s indictment of conservative Republican stands to give Perry a boost, should he decide to run for president in 2016.
The Democrats pushing the case against Perry, Ayers said, “are trying to criminalize political disagreements.”
“This is a trumped up indictment,” Ayers said. “It’s such an obvious and blatant abuse of prosecutorial discretion, it may be the best thing that’s happened to Rick Perry.”
Perry was indicted last week on charges of coercion and official oppression for vetoing $7.5 million for the state public integrity unit, which investigates wrongdoing by elected officials and is run by the Travis County district attorney's office. Perry threatened the veto if the county's Democratic district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, stayed in office after a drunken driving conviction.
She refused to step down. A video of Lehmberg in jail following her 2013 arrest showed the district attorney badly slurring her words, shouting at staffers to call the sheriff, kicking the door of her cell, and sticking her tongue out. Her blood alcohol level was also three times the legal limit for driving.
“Perry’s got a great foil,” Ayers said, “someone with a high blood alcohol level who was being belligerent and obnoxious.”
Legal experts across the political spectrum have said the case against him may be a tough sell to a jury. No one disputes that Perry has the right to veto any measures passed by the state legislature, including any parts of the state budget.
But the complaint against Perry alleges that by publicly threatening a veto and trying to force Lehmberg to resign, he coerced her.
"It's not about politics. It's about the governor's abuse of power," said attorney Jan Soifer, who's also a Democratic Party leader in Austin.
Meanwhile, ice cream-loving Perry is hardly keeping a low profile.
He appeared on television news shows belittling the charges and indictment and saying that he acted properly and, what’s more, he would do it all over again.
Perry spoke with the kind of confidence and assertiveness that often eluded him during the GOP primary debates for the 2012 presidential election. In the debates, he occasionally stammered, and sometimes forgot his train of thought, eliciting jokes and concerns about his ability to stand the rigors of debates during the general election and, not less worrisome, his ability to withstand the pressure of running the country.
“Americans don’t like political persecution,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a former staffer in the George W. Bush administration. “The fact that many in the party who don’t normally agree with him, like Ted Cruz and Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, all have come out supporting him, is going to help him.”
Perry’s battle, cast as one between a tough political leader and liberals wanting to ruin him, is particularly appealing to the GOP’s conservative base, experts say.
“This goes to the issue of government overreach,” Aguilar said, a burning theme for tea party groups.
Aguilar expects Perry’s battle in this case to help him with fundraising and in building up an image as a symbol of resistance to a liberal witch-hunt.
The Texas governor already was becoming a fixture in the national headlines over the influx of Central American migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
Perry blamed the border crisis on a lack of control and security along the border – a weakness he blamed on the Obama administration. He ordered members of the National Guard to patrol the border, saying the federal government could not be trusted to do the job.
“He was already gaining momentum,” Aguilar said about the governor. “He will continue to be one of the most talked-about contenders in the Republican field for the presidential election.”
Some political experts, however, believe that while Perry's fight against the Democrats in Texas may raise his popularity, it may not be enough.
"It won't hurt," political scientist Louis DeSipio of the University of California, Irvine, told Fox News Latino. "It feeds into the message among GOP primary voters that 'the Democrats are out to get us.' And it helps in a primary field where you have a lot of iconoclastic conservatives, having that image of fighting Democrats."
That said, DeSipio noted, Perry would still need to overcome the 2012 image of himself as bumbling and looking unsure during the primary debates. He could be up against rivals like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a fellow Republican, or former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, two politicians who do well before large audiences and in debates.
"He's got to get through that GOP primary first," DeSipio said. "He has to overcome that inability [in 2012] to articulate things clearly."
Then, should he get the Republican nomination, DeSipio said, "He'd have to move to the middle for the general election. Other Republicans [who may run in 2016] have been trying, more than Perry, to speak to the moderate wing of the party, and to galvanize them."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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