At some point in every major national politician's life, their history becomes mythology and their persona becomes fixed in the public imagination. Rick Perry, his opponents and many pundits like to say, is a fortunate fellow, a handsome, photogenic cowboy whose charm exceeds his intellectual ability; a man who's been lucky in his alliances and even luckier in the opponents he has drawn over the years. Had fortune not smiled on him, or if an even more potent force - Karl Rove - had not plucked him from the ranks, Perry would never had risen to become the longest-serving governor in Texas history and the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. So goes the conventional wisdom.
But Perry's story defies this simple explanation. He has exhibited an uncanny knack for sensing the zeitgeist, for understanding the wave of change that swept across Texas in the late 1980s as the Democratic Party's rural dominance diminished and Republicans spread from Dallas drawing rooms to evangelical churches. Perry, once a Democrat, didn't lead the GOP's march to the right. But now he's at the front of a national conservative parade and, as evidenced by Monday's debate, wearing a large target on his back, not an unfamiliar position for the longest serving governor in Texas history. (Watch TIME's video "Rick Perry Is Ready to Run for President.")