Rick Perry back in Iowa, with less roar and more whisper

December 22, 2011

Rick Perry stormed into the Republican presidential race with a certain swagger over the summer, when he planted one foot on a hay bale at the Iowa State Fair and roared, “Government, get out of the way.”

His pitch these days is humbler, that of a flawed but earnest candidate — a Christian and a military man who is not a grandfather but hopes to be someday. A public servant who fears deeply for the nation’s future.

“Listen,” he said recently at a coffee shop here in front of several dozen voters. “I may not be the most polished candidate out there. . . . I may not even be the best debater. . . . I’m that outsider that’s going to go in and deconstruct that mentality in Washington that they know best.”

Less than two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the Texas governor is trying to reclaim some of the cachet he has lost since his initial burst of success. He continues to languish in the single digits in polls, with attention focused on a battle between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) hovering as a potential spoiler.

But Perry’s presence in the race remains a factor the other candidates cannot ignore. He is a formidable fundraiser, bringing in $17 million — more than any of his GOP rivals — during the last fundraising period. Over the past two months, his campaign and a “super PAC” backing him poured $2.7 million into Iowa television ads, more than all his rivals combined.

Now, Perry hopes that his 2,500-mile, 42-city bus tour across Iowa will drive up his numbers by letting him do what he does best on the campaign trail: win over voters one on one.

“I just want people to know I’m an approachable, regular person,” he said in an interview in the back of his campaign bus, where he said he sometimes unwinds with a short nap between events. “I’m kind of the same guy I was 20 years ago. A little more broken down now, maybe. Older but wiser.”

Political observers who have watched Perry’s career say the humility isn’t an act. After two decades of navigating the familiar territory of Texas, he was unprepared for the rigors of a national campaign, they say.

“He’s very comfortable moving among Texans. His feel for that is pitch perfect,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas. “But he’s not in Texas. He’s unsure, he’s nervous, he’s scared and he’s losing. . . . In the end, he’ll come back to his place in Texas but he’ll never have that swagger again.”

Perry said the questions he is asked on the campaign trail are more pointed than those he faces in Texas, “edgier” — in part, he surmises, because the state’s economy is so much stronger than that of other states.

Before his late entrance into the race, Perry was considered the GOP’s “complete package” to take on President Obama. He had more than a decade of experience running an economically strong state, and a populist appeal that could bring around tea party and religious conservatives. Once he entered the contest, he usurped Romney’s place as front-runner.

But his lead dissipated weeks later with a series of shaky debate performances, including one in which he was unable to recall one of three federal departments he said he would eliminate. This week, a Washington Post-ABC News survey found him in fourth place nationally among GOP candidates, with 7 percent of the vote.

Many GOP activists in Iowa say that they haven’t seen a Perry surge brewing. A recent Perry Web ad stirred controversy for condemning gays in the military. And last week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R), a natural Perry ally because of their southern connection, endorsed Romney.

Some have questioned whether Perry has a true hunger for the presidency. In speeches, he acknowledges that occupying the Oval Office has not been on his bucket list.

“It’s just never been my purpose in life to be president of the United States,” he told a crowd at a truck stop in Algona, Iowa. “It’s been my purpose in life to try to pay my country back for what it’s given me, and that’s why I’m standing here before you today.”

Perry’s backers say that the swagger was exaggerated by the media and that he has always been more down-to-earth than the coverage suggested. But they acknowledge that he has learned a thing or two since August.

“I think it’s sort of a natural maturation of a candidate,” said Robert House, co-chairman of Perry’s Iowa operation. He added that “there’s always some preconceived notions about guys from Texas.” Now, as Perry meets people on the trail, they are seeing, “Hey, he’s a guy I’d like to have as my neighbor,” House said.

Perry still delivers fiery stump speeches skewering Obama, his GOP rivals, and a sort of axis of evil he describes between Washington and Wall Street.

But he is soft-spoken when talking to voters, so quiet that reporters sometimes have to crane their necks to hear what he’s saying. He greets folks with a warm, “Howdy. Rick.” He makes a beeline to talk to any children in the room. During a particularly animated diner visit, he kissed a woman on her head and tugged on a man’s full beard.

“You got a lot going on there,” he told the hirsute voter.

His schedule is lighter than that of some of his opponents. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) held 13 events on Saturday, compared with Perry’s four. But he often lingers at his campaign stops, pausing to shoot the breeze.

On Sunday, after attending services at one church and making brief remarks at another, he spent an hour eating lunch with the family of a Navy SEAL who was killed in action. Perry went to the buffet table twice for dessert.

“Actually, honey that’s produced in the place where you live is a good way to fight off allergies,” he had told workers one day last week at the Coffee Plant, a coffee shop in Harlan, Iowa. “There’s your health tip for the day.”

Over the first several days of his bus tour, he appeared most at ease one morning at a diner as he parked himself at a table packed with Republican voters. Over coffee laced with Sweet’N Low, Perry never asked for their votes.

Instead, he ruminated over how the landscape of Iowa resembles parts of Texas, although the sub-freezing temperatures do not. He reminisced about his travels as a pilot in the Air Force. (“Growing up, I’d never been outside of Texas.”) He talked about the family’s black Labrador retriever and “weiner dog” back in Austin, where he will spend Christmas.

Then he was back on the road again, “like Willie Nelson,” one of the voters observed. “Or our other country singer that sings that song,” Perry interjected. “Robert Earl Keen, ‘Road Goes On Forever?’ ” He missed a bit on the lyrics. “ ‘It never ends.’ That’s kind of a good way to look at it.”

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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