MERRILL, Iowa — Texas Gov. Rick Perry has promised to draw distinctions between himself, his main Republican opponent and President Obama. “It is time for bold, bright colors, not pastels,” he often says.
Perry delivered on that promise the moment he stepped out of his sport-utility vehicle at a hunting preserve here in remote northwestern Iowa shortly after dawn Saturday. The GOP presidential hopeful arrived in rubber camouflage boots, green nylon pants and an orange-shouldered vest. He had come to hunt pheasants — and he made clear he’s no novice.
“As long as I’ve got memory, I had something to go hunting with,” Perry told a small gaggle of reporters at the Loess Hills Hunting Preserve. “It was a long love affair with a boy and his gun that turned into a man and his gun, and then it turned into a man and his son and his daughter and their guns.”
Perry was setting off for a 90-minute hunt with the area’s congressman, Steve King, and other Iowa Republicans, before flying to eastern Iowa for an afternoon event and delivering a dinner speech in Des Moines.
“One of the great American traditions is taking your family hunting,” he said. “I wish my son and daughter were here with us today. They would truly enjoy this. From my perspective, that’s part of America — walking across that hillside with one of your children hunting.”
The contrast was clear. It’s difficult to imagine Obama clad in camouflage and highway-worker orange hunting pheasants on a chilly Iowa morning. The same could be said for Mitt Romney, Perry’s chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination.
During his 2008 presidential campaign, Romney found himself repeatedly explaining his hunting experience. The former Massachusetts governor called himself a lifelong hunter. At one 2007 stop, he said he had “been a hunter pretty much all my life.” At another, he said: “I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will.”
But those comments got Romney in some hot water, as his campaign later acknowledged that Romney had gone hunting just twice — shooting rabbits in Idaho with cousins as a teenager and quail with donors in Georgia in 2006.
This year, Romney has not discussed his hunting experience or been photographed on a hunt. On the trail, Romney does sometimes tout his support of Second Amendment rights.
Before beginning his hunt, Perry continued the attack he launched in Tuesday’s debate over Romney’s hiring of a lawn-care company that had employed illegal immigrants. After learning that the workers tending to his yard at his Belmont, Mass., home were undocumented, Romney fired the company.
But Perry charged here Saturday that Romney has personally contributed to the “magnet” that is drawing immigrants across the border illegally.
“For Governor Romney to be making strong statements about immigration when it’s been his actions that have caused part of this problem — the magnet of jobs is what has driven these people to come to the United States,” Perry said.
The Texan added: “Mitt stands back and makes statements about criticizing Texas for how they’ve had to deal with an issue that the federal government and people like himself are the problems.”
Perry’s focus on Romney is an attempt to deflect attention from his own record on immigration — including a state law granting in-state college tuition breaks to some undocumented immigrants — which has drawn criticism from some conservatives.
In response to Perry’s comments Saturday, Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said: “If anyone has an illegal immigration problem, it’s Rick Perry. . . . While Rick Perry thinks a border fence is ‘idiocy’ and that people that don’t support in-state tuition for illegal immigrants ‘don’t have a heart,’ Mitt Romney supports a border fence and vetoed an in-state tuition bill as governor.”
Saul added: “Rick Perry is a desperate candidate resorting to negative personal attacks because his campaign is collapsing.”
Perry is trying to rebound here in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. Upon entering the race in August, Perry rocketed to the top of Iowa and national polls, but he has seen a decline in his standing.
Asked whether he has a path to the nomination if he does not win in Iowa, Perry told reporters, “I’m gonna compete to win everywhere.
“That’s kind of like asking the Iowa State Cyclones if they’re gonna win the football game today against Texas A&M. I can promise you what they’re gonna be saying: ‘You better believe it.’ ”
“I’m for the Aggies,” said Perry, who is an A&M graduate. “I don’t get confused about who I’m for. . . . I’m not gonna to be one of those people that roll into Iowa and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m for the Cyclones because I’m running for office.’ People see through that pretty quick.”