In Iowa, Perry On Point But Rarely On the Spot

Texas Gov. Rick Perry greets an Iowa voter at a GOP event in Greene County.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry greets an Iowa voter at a GOP event in Greene County.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Rick Perry wraps up a job creation-touting, tough-talking, Mitt Romney-slamming cross-state tour here today, trading the debate drama of early this week for the small-town meet-and-greets where he’s at his best.

He played up his agricultural roots to corn growers and hog processors in coffee shops and on county fairgrounds. He boasted of bolstering Texas’ economy to small business owners and at a credit union convention. Everywhere he went, he sought to distance himself from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor closest behind Perry in GOP presidential polls.

“There are great and good men who are running for the presidency,” Perry said, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at Uncle Nancy’s Coffeehouse and Eatery on the town square in Newton. “There is no one on the stage who has the record I have.”

On this trip, Perry's message was largely controlled — free of the off-the-cuff remarks that plagued his last visit to the state. In prepared speeches made over barbecue dinners and red, white and blue bunting, Perry largely steered clear of the topics that got him in hot water during Monday night's presidential debate, like his 2007 executive order that adolescent girls receive the HPV vaccine. He thanked God for the Tea Party — though its members have booed him for his 2001 authorization of in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. On this trip, he didn’t call Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” as he has done repeatedly, trading that rhetoric for broader lines about the financial instability facing younger generations of Americans.

“Let’s not scare seniors, tell them this program is going to go away, that mean old thoughtless people are going to take it away,” Perry said at a credit union convention in Des Moines, referencing Romney’s recent political attacks. “That is political cowardice at its greatest.”

Instead, in the “breadbasket of America,” Perry stayed a primarily economic course: He boasted of Texas’ job growth, his management of the state’s massive economy and his budget-balancing experience. “We need to let the private sector do what the private sector does best, create jobs,” he said in remarks on the Greene County Fairgrounds.

Perry railed against stimulus spending, over-regulation and the "nanny state," pledging to repeal the financial regulatory reforms the Democratically controlled Congress passed in 2010 and work toward a “flatter and broader and fairer” federal tax code. “We need to have real hope in this country. And real change," he said. "And that real hope and that real change comes from someone who understands that the power of America is not in Washington, D.C." 

He lambasted Romney wherever possible — on his job creation record, on his support for "socialized medicine" in Massachusetts, and on the parallels he sees between Romney and President Obama. Whether government-mandated health insurance is “passed in Massachusetts or passed in Washington, D.C., it needs to be stopped,” Perry said. “…It costs too much. It kills too many good jobs.”

In a rare unscripted moment, Perry crossed paths with a woman who wanted to know if he'd supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, also known as the 2008 bank bailout. Perry said no. When the woman said she had seen a letter Perry signed that year in his capacity as the head of the Republican Governors Association urging Congress to pass TARP, Perry can be heard on video telling her "you saw wrong." (Perry's office has argued the letter urged Congress to pass an "economic recovery package" but didn't indicate support for the bailout.)  

On the heels of Monday night’s debate, where Perry was attacked from an unusual place — the right, for not being conservative enough — he sought to connect on a personal level in Iowa. He reminisced about his father while shaking elderly farmers’ hands. He mentioned his Air Force years to decorated veterans. He gave bear hugs and furrowed his brow when small-business owners described their tax burden. He talked about the weather — again and again and again. Describing his hardscrabble roots to Iowa farmers, Perry said he “wasn’t born with four aces in my hand,” another jab at Romney, who used the line in Monday’s debate to downplay Perry’s job creation record in Texas.

But that didn’t mean the undecided Republican primary voters who showed up to meet him weren’t talking about Perry's recent controversies — at least once he was out of earshot. 

Jeff Kienast, who runs a soybean processing plant in Jamaic and came to hear Perry in nearby Jefferson, said he agrees with Perry that Social Security is broken, but that calling it a “Ponzi scheme” publicly wasn’t a smart move. “He should’ve used different words,” he said. “And I still haven’t heard what he can do to fix it.”

While Kienast wasn’t worried about Perry’s history with mandating the HPV vaccine, Marvin Rasmussen, Kienast’s business partner, argued “people shouldn’t be forced into getting it.”

Other Iowa Republicans cheered Perry’s job creation record and said they trusted him to downsize the government regulation they face in their plants and factories, but they remained worried about his stance on corn-based ethanol (he has consistently spoken out against it) and farm subsidies (despite accepting them as a Paint Creek farmer, he opposes them now).

Judy Bissinger of Clive, who’s committed to Romney but came to Jefferson to hear Perry speak, acknowledged that the Texas governor is “pretty impressive.” But she said a lot of Iowans worry he won't be able to defeat Obama. 

“He’s been in politics his whole life,” she said of Perry. “Romney has so much more experience in the private sector, in the business community, of knowing what will work.”

One place Perry didn’t stop on this Iowa swing? The town of Perry — in Dallas County, no less. Perry the town bears some striking similarities to parts of rural Texas, from its economic drivers — a Tyson meatpacking plant and several farm machinery manufacturers — to its population, which is 30 percent Hispanic. But Laura Pieper, managing editor of the weekly Perry Chief newspaper, said the same-name connection has so far been lost on the community’s residents, who have already had visits from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (who has since dropped out of the race).

“I’m not sure the irony has hit most people yet,” she said. “But the jokes may start flying soon.”

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