* Perry could bridge gap between two wings of party
* Texas governor already placing third in recent polls
By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON, July 21 (Reuters) - The likely entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry in the 2012 Republican White House race promises to dramatically reshape the field, pushing aside lesser contenders and threatening early leader Mitt Romney.
Perry, who last week said he felt "called" to a presidential run, is a staunch conservative with a Washington outsider's political resume and a pro-business record of job growth during more than a decade as chief executive in Texas.
That is a potent blend in a party dominated by social and Tea Party fiscal conservatives, and in a campaign focused on a lagging economy and stubbornly high unemployment.
A Perry candidacy could steal support from conservative Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, replacing her as Romney's top rival and potentially narrowing the gap between the party's establishment center and right-wing activists.
"I'm not sure anybody can bridge both camps, but Perry has a chance," Republican consultant Rich Galen said.
Perry has been urged into the race by activists unhappy with the current pack of contenders for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
The wide open field and Romney's fragile front-runner status are an enticing combination for Perry, who says he will decide whether to run in the next few weeks. Supporters in Texas expect him to get in and do well.
"The race will come down to Romney and him, and I think he can beat Romney," veteran Texas Republican consultant Reggie Bashur said. "He's got a consistent conservative philosophy and he knows how to articulate it."
Perry will face significant challenges in a national race, however, from a late start in fundraising to doubts about whether voters are ready for another former Texas governor in the White House after the stormy tenure of George W. Bush.
Perry is little known nationally but has generated intense curiosity. He places third in several recent Republican polls, behind Romney and Bachmann but comfortably ahead of declared candidates like Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman.
If he gets in, he plans to run in each of the states with early nominating contests, directly challenging Bachmann in her top priority of Iowa and Romney in New Hampshire.
CONSERVATIVE, WITH AN ECONOMIC RECORD
A vehement critic of federal power and a strong opponent of abortion rights and gay marriage, Perry has the sort of credibility with social and Tea Party conservatives that often eludes Romney, a former governor of liberal Massachusetts.
And his executive experience in conservative Texas, which has seen sharp job growth during his tenure, gives him economic talking points and an appeal to the pro-business party base that Bachmann and others cannot match.
"He's been very adept at pushing his agenda and very good at getting re-elected," said Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. "He can run on his economic record in a way that a lot of others can't."
Raised on a west Texas farm, Perry has never lost an election. After a stint in the Air Force, he rose through the ranks of Texas politics from the House of Representatives to agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and then governor in 2000 when Bush left for the White House.
He won an unprecedented third re-election as governor last year after crushing U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in a primary battle that made the party establishment in Washington take notice, although many remain wary of the Texan.
Even critics in Texas offer begrudging praise for his political skills. "He's somebody that people like. He works a room with the best of them," said Kirk Watson, head of the Texas Senate Democratic caucus and a former Austin mayor.
Bill Ratliff, Perry's first lieutenant governor, said Perry had a knack for spotting trends. "I was always more concerned about whether something was good policy and he was always more concerned about whether it was good politics," he said.
Perry has appealed to religious conservatives by issuing a proclamation calling on drought-plagued Texans to pray for rain and hosting a day of prayer in Houston next month, although that could turn off some independents in a general election.
He would have a strong regional base as the only southern governor in the race, but could find it difficult to win over a broader electorate with fresh memories of Bush.
Perry's critics say job growth in Texas, fueled by the energy sector and trade with Latin America, was just as strong at times under previous governors. Many of the new jobs have been low wage and accompanied by big cuts in education, low levels of service and high numbers of uninsured.
He also would have to overcome a recent history of flops by late entries to presidential races, including Republican Fred Thompson in 2008 and Democrat Wesley Clark in 2004.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)