Calling yourself a compassionate conservative was a pretty good move in 2000, and something like that would probably work today. Even if lots of people on the left didn't trust it, people on the center found it relatively easy to regard Bush as a moderate. But nothing like it is going to be available to Rick Perry if he wins the GOP nomination. The kind of things he'll have to say to get there, and that he's already said in his book and on the stage, don't leave him much of a chance to look like a moderate.
I agree with the general idea that economic factors determine election outcomes, but there are times when political positioning makes a difference. If Harry Reid could beat Sharron Angle by 7 points in a state with 14% unemployment, this kind of thing has to matter at least a little.