ATLANTIC, Iowa — There are only a few things voters here say they know about Rick Perry.
They know he’s been governor for a while.
They know Texas is a big state with a lot of jobs.
They know Perry has a reputation for being brash and talking frankly.
And, after casting about for just the right Republican to take on President Obama, they know, for now, that he may be the one.
“I can’t quite explain it,” said Steve Bennett, 59, who sized up Perry the other night over a plate of roasted turkey and green beans. “He’s thick-skinned, he’s already run a big state. Whatever his beliefs are, which I don’t know yet, I think he actually believes them and has convictions. He’s the only one who can sit with Obama at the debate — when Obama’s in full campaign mode he’ll be tough to beat — and maybe beat him.”
So it is that Republican voters, at least those Iowans who took stock of Perry this week, are turning conventional wisdom on its head.
The thinking goes that the more measured and moderate Mitt Romney can appeal to a broader swath of independent voters. But Republicans here say it’s Perry who can best challenge Obama, expose him for the fraud they believe the president to be. They see Perry’s fed-up-with-Washington message as theirs and one that can take him straight to the White House.
As Perry swooped through five cities across Iowa this week, hastening to make a good first impression after his late entry into the race, hundreds of Republicans turned out to see the Texan who has rocketed to the top of the polls. Many came with an idea of who Perry might be.
Carole Doane, 55, who is unemployed, arrived at a Newton coffee shop Friday morning hoping to see another Ronald Reagan — “sunny and uplifting and personable and dignified, somebody who’s experienced and has humility.”
Joel Shields, 68, a pharmacist, wanted to see someone who stands by what he believes. “I’m going to hear him, and when he’s done, I’m going to grab him and say, ‘Do you really believe all those things? Oh, and let’s see your tongue. Is it forked?’ ”
Mike Jones, 67, a retired municipal worker, wanted to see someone with the intensity to take on the Washington establishment — someone “who’s not afraid of a fight.”
By the time Perry had arrived at the coffee shop, shook nearly everyone’s hand, kneeled down to whisper in a few ears and delivered his riff about the rebirth of freedom — “There is nothing ailing America that can’t be cured with a rebirth of freedom,” he said — these voters found what he or she had come looking for.
“I think he’s the one,” Jones said. “He’s very personable, he’s very sincere. He looked like the real deal to me. He just has this genuine attitude, he has the energy and intensity it takes to get it done.”
Republican strategists are drawing some parallels to Obama’s campaign.
“Many voters in 2008 had no idea what Barack Obama actually believed or had proposed. They liked the idea of Obama. Same may be largely true with Rick Perry,” said GOP strategist Mark McKinnon, who advised George W. Bush’s and John McCain’s presidential campaigns.
“They are largely looking at attributes over issues,” he added. “They are looking for a candidate who is strong, who they think shares their values and who they believe they can trust. Perry’s candidacy is largely being fueled by voters who hear his echoes of the resentments they feel toward Washington. And they think he is bold and brash and a fighter.”
Still, Perry hasn’t closed the deal yet. Many of those voters interviewed said they were also considering voting for Romney and wanted to see how the two perform in upcoming debates. Notably, some who supported Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) at August’s Iowa straw poll said they would caucus either for Perry or Romney next year, but not for her.
“When you look at that debate stage, you see a president and an entire Cabinet. But who’s the president?” said Terry Kach, 63, a retired auto shop worker from Ankeny who said he voted for Bachmann at the straw poll. “Probably Romney. He can give Obama a heck of a debate. But Perry, he can, too. He’s got that twang.”
Even as voters here seem to look past his positions to project onto Perry all of their hopes for who the nominee should be, Perry’s rivals are working furiously to sew a narrative that Perry’s controversial remarks, such as on Social Security, render him too far outside the mainstream.
A Bloomberg poll released this week raised doubts about Perry’s electability. While it found that Republicans generally agreed with Perry’s controversial statements on Social Security, evolution and climate change, among all Americans, Perry is viewed unfavorably by 41 percent and favorably by 32 percent. In hypothetical general election match-ups against Obama, Romney performed better than Perry by four percentage points, according to the survey.
Romney’s campaign, which has been pounding Perry on Social Security, is preparing new lines of attack that could focus on the perks Perry has received over a long career in elected office, as well as his Texas law granting in-state college tuition to some illegal immigrants.
“People are going to know this stuff in the same way they found out Howard Dean had crazy ideas, in the same way they found out Michael Dukakis looked good in a tank,” Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said in reference to past Democratic presidential hopefuls.
“This is what happens,” Stevens added. “Horror movies love to start with everybody at a party having fun. That’s not how they end. This is a long movie.”
Yet even as Romney and other contenders, including Bachmann, chip away at Perry — and as the national media uncovers unflattering new details about Perry’s tenure as governor — some voters may not necessarily care.
“The one thing Republicans are united on is beating Obama,” said Matt Whitaker, Perry’s Iowa campaign co-chairman. “We’ve got a winner here. He feels like a winner.”