FLORENCE, S.C. — In his first week on the campaign trail, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has struggled to achieve what no Republican presidential hopeful has so far:
To hit just the right note — speaking from one’s gut and standing up to President Obama to satisfy a Republican base hungry for a firebrand, while also sounding like a statesman whom Americans, and independent voters in particular, can easily envision occupying the White House.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the national front-runner, has been statesmanlike, but his measured tone has left conservative activists wanting. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), the Iowa front-runner, fires up the base but has not convinced everyone she’s suited for the Oval Office.
Perry’s hope is that he can balance out his chief rivals, calibrating his tone just right to navigate the party’s seemingly competing desires.
But in his debut as a candidate, Perry zigzagged between cowboy zingers — such as saying Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke would be treated “pretty ugly down in Texas” if he printed more money — and the more restrained remarks he made Friday in South Carolina.
“Rick Perry is the closest thing to an establishment candidate that the tea party is going to accept, and he is the closest thing to a tea party candidate that the GOP establishment is going to accept,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California and a senior aide on Sen. John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.
“He might be the most naturally talented campaigner in the field,” Schnur added. “But like all of us he is a product of his environment, and that cuts both ways.”
In part because he is the newest entrant, Perry has drawn large crowds this week in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Here in Florence, he was greeted as a heartthrob Friday morning as more than 300 people jammed around tables, stood on booths and craned their necks to see past the hot breakfast buffet at Bazen’s Family Restaurant and take stock of the Texan.
It was one of the more enthusiastic crowds any candidate has assembled this year, and Perry did not disappoint when he tore into Obama.
“The president’s been on a jobs tour,” Perry said. “He had his big ol’ bus — his big ol’ $1.2 million bus, made in Canada. But, anyway, the real issue is our president’s out there and he goes on a jobs tour. This is the president of the United States that has killed more jobs in America than I think any president. . . . The only job he cares about is the one he’s got.”
Perry said his campaign is about “cuttin’ taxes, cuttin’ regulations and cuttin’ litigation.” In one of his biggest applause lines, he said: “I am a pro-business governor, and I don’t make any apologies to anybody about it. I’m going to be a pro-business president, and I won’t make any apologies about it.”
Perry learned this week that what may please his Republican audiences may not go over as well with people tuning in nationwide. Speaking to a ballroom of Iowa Republicans on Sunday night, Perry said: “One of the reasons, one of the powerful reasons, that I’m running for the presidency of the United States is to make sure that every young man and woman who puts on the uniform of this country respects highly the president of the United States.”
The next day, at the Iowa State Fair, Perry said: “I think you want a president who is passionate about America — that’s in love with America.” Asked by a reporter if he was suggesting that Obama doesn’t love America, Perry said, “You need to ask him.”
Both remarks were interpreted by some as slights against Obama. A couple of days later in New Hampshire, Perry said he had not been “besmirching the current commander in chief.”
Perry’s comments about Bernanke drew a swift rebuke, even from within his own party. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) said Perry “has to tone that down a bit.”
Former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, who chaired Tim Pawlenty’s now-defunct campaign, said the comments “raised the question that so many people had about him: Can he translate beyond Texas? Can that sell in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Florida and Indiana?”
Softening his tone, Perry spent the remainder of the week trying to prove that he can.
“It’s the adage, what happens in Iowa doesn’t stay in Iowa,” said Republican pollster David Winston. “It’s not just Republicans that are paying attention. The entire country is paying attention. . . . You’ve got to appeal to the Republican base and make sure that you’re maintaining your appeal to independents as well. That’s going to be a challenge for all the candidates.”
Staff writer Karen Tumulty in Washington contributed to this report. Henderson reported from Washington.