WATERLOO, Iowa — Michele Bachmann has campaigned in all of Iowa’s 99 counties. Rick Santorum has held more than 250 events in the state since June. But some Iowans may have seen more of Rick Perry than anyone else.
The Texas governor’s leathered face and cowboy twang have become constants on televisions across the state. Indeed, when Perry’s campaign bus pulled up to a pizza shop here Friday, there the candidate was, on the television above the bar, slickly delivering his latest pitch: “I’m Rick Perry. I’m not ashamed of talking about my faith.”
Perry, the one-time Republican presidential front-runner whose campaign torpedoed after a string of poor debate performances and public speaking gaffes, has turned to one advantage he has to pull himself back into contention: his money.
One of the strongest fundraisers in the field, Perry has bought at least $1.6 million worth of television advertisements in Iowa through Sunday, more than any other candidate. About three-quarters of that has been on negative spots attacking his opponents, according to an analysis by Kantar Media/CMAG.
That has bestowed on Perry an air of dominance in the state. But it is not clear whether his ubiquity on the airwaves will push him back into the front of the pack. With only days until Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, the question is whether Iowans will give Perry the second chance he is seeking.
“I’m asking you to vote your conservative values, values I learned growing up in a little place called Paint Creek,” Perry told about 100 voters at Doughy Joey’s in Waterloo on Friday. “Some talk a good game, but I’ve delivered.”
On the stump, Perry’s pitch sounds like a kitchen-sink variety of the lines he utters in his commercials. He says he’s an outsider not corrupted by the influences of Washington who would make Congress a part-time institution. He says he’s an Air Force veteran who would grow the military and take it to a nuclear Iran. He says he’s an opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights who quotes the prophet Isaiah.
A new NBC-Marist poll shows Perry’s support growing to 14 percent, a statistical tie for third place with former House speaker Newt Gingrich and a surging Santorum. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led with 23 percent, followed by Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) at 21 percent.
Perry is in a race with Gingrich, Santorum and, to a lesser extent, Bachmann to finish in the top tier here and remain a viable candidate heading into the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. To that end, he has branded those three as “Washington insiders,” assailing them for their records in Congress.
“You have to ask yourself, we’re gonna replace a Democrat insider with a Republican insider, you think it’s gonna change anything in Washington, D.C.?” Perry told about 100 voters in Waterloo on Friday.
It’s a message calibrated to appeal to Christian conservatives and tea party activists. Judging by the applause he received, it’s going over well. But the question folks are asking as they take Perry’s stock is whether he’s a flawed messenger.
“His ads are pretty good,” said Joe Dygas, a retired farm equipment dealer in Ankeny, Iowa. “But Ron Paul’s ads are pretty good, too, and I wouldn’t vote for him in a million years.”
“If I were Dr. Frankenstein and could take parts of different candidates,” he said, “I’d take Romney’s business management skill and presidential demeanor, Newt Gingrich’s knowledge of history and Herman Cain’s passion and ability to speak at the common-man level.”
What part of Perry would Dygas take?
“I just don’t know how I’d fit Perry into that,” he said.
Perry is working furiously to change the minds of voters such as Dygas, hoping they might remember why they were drawn to him this summer. Perry is one of the strongest fundraisers in the race, bringing in $17 million for his campaign in the third quarter, more than any other candidate. He relied heavily on wealthy donors from Texas giving the maximum $2,500 contribution.
He has spent $2 million on television ads, all but about $300,000 of that in Iowa. He far outpaces the other candidates. Paul, the second-highest spender, has run about $1.3 million in television ads, according to the Kantar Media/CMAG analysis.
Meanwhile, Make Us Great Again, a so-called super PAC run by one of Perry’s close confidants, has spent heavily in Iowa, boosting Perry’s candidacy and attacking his rivals. The group can accept donations of any size, allowing even a small number of wealthy benefactors to put a steady stream of funds behind Perry.
Perry’s advisers believe the advertisements are working, citing a noticeable uptick in the number of volunteers requesting yard signs, bumper stickers and offering support in the caucuses.
Perry’s communications director, Ray Sullivan, said the campaign is not draining its resources in Iowa, insisting that it has socked away money to compete in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
“We’ve got ample resources and obviously a strong, proven financial network in place,” he said.
When Perry rocketed to the top of the field upon announcing his bid in August, he made his Iowa debut here in Waterloo. He was swaggering as he worked the Electric Ballroom, schmoozing with scores of local Republicans to the strains of “Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
The candidate who returned to Waterloo on Friday was a different Rick Perry. Gone was the gusto. As he spoke, he looked down at his black binder of typed notes. He told some of the same stories — of his long courtship of his wife, as well as the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo who died during the sinking of a World War II vessel — but his tone was more subdued.
Did Perry win folks over?
“Well,” said Loren Miller, 81, a retired farmer who drove 30 miles north from La Porte City, Iowa, to size Perry up. “I’m still toying a little.”
Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.