In his first return to Iowa since participating in back-to-back debates, Gov. Rick Perry will make his way back to the hand-shaking, small-town campaigning he does best, in a series of coffee shop and county fairground events designed to remind early primary voters who he is.
It's a departure from this week's stops in Florida and Virginia, where Perry made national headlines for taking attacks in the CNN/Tea Party Express debate, and for trying to recast them. In Iowa, in the few days before he returns to Florida for another debate and a high-profile straw poll, he'll bounce between GOP meet-and-greets at small-town diners, visit a Coca-Cola bottling plant, and likely talk fiscal policy to a credit union convention in Des Moines.
And he'll do it with a newly bolstered Iowa political team, including five former Iowa staffers for past GOP candidate Tim Pawlenty, and 2008 veterans of the McCain-Palin camp.
"He's going east to west ... in the continuation of a conversation he's going to have with Iowa caucus-goers," said Matt Whitaker, the co-chairman of Perry's Iowa team. Whitaker, Pawlenty's former Iowa campaign chief, said the areas where Perry took particular heat in Monday night's GOP debate in Tampa — from mandating the HPV vaccine to adolescent girls to authorizing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants — will be water under the bridge when voters are considering who can win a general election. "That stuff will shake out in the broader picture," Whitaker said.
Craig Robinson, an uncommitted Iowa Republican strategist who publishes The Iowa Republican website, said Perry's swing this week is incredibly important, so he can build on his relationship with voters outside of the debate setting. "Then, regardless of what happens in a debate, people will say, ‘I’ve had the opportunity to meet him, to shake his hand, to get to know his personality, and I like the guy,'" Robinson said.
But Eric Woolson, an Iowa Republican consultant who was George W. Bush's state communications director during the 2000 campaign, said Perry shouldn't be surprised to hear a lot of the same questions he was asked during the debate. Iowa voters "are the true die-hards that pay attention to this process," Woolson said. "He’s going to want to know, what do these folks have to say about the debate? Because they’re the ones going to be coming out on that cold, cold night in February" to caucus.
What he'll get in return, Woolson said, is a sense of how his answers played among real people — not talking heads.
"One of the real virtues of coming to Iowa is you do meet a lot of those folks in small groups, in coffee shops, where they can look you in the eye and size you up and ask you those questions," said Woolson, who managed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 campaign in Iowa, and was an early Pawlenty enlistee this time around. He has since done a little leg work for Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, but is quick to note he hasn't endorsed a candidate for 2012. "I'm a firm believer in the retail politics of the Iowa caucuses," he said.