ORANGE CITY, Iowa — Rick Perry brought his A-game to Iowa on Saturday, unleashing a new set of specifics, promising a jobs plan next week and giving much-improved answers to questions on immigration and Social Security that have dogged his candidacy.
But his audiences weren’t always sold, and applause was sometimes half-hearted. While the early primary voters here said they connected with him personally, they had lingering concerns about his policies and feared he might not be the most electable Republican.
When one man in a Spencer, Iowa, audience, seemed to suggest as much, Perry was adamant. Voters “are interested not in what some pundit says, in the joke of the day, in trying to get a laugh on a debate or a television station,” he said. “They are interested a serious candidate who can get America working again.”
Clearly embracing immigration as his Achilles' heel, Perry hit border security hard and often on Saturday, offering a new explanation for his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants: that Texas had no choice but to do it because the U.S. government had failed to lock down the border.
“They dumped it on the states,” Perry said. “Are we going to kick these people to the side of the road and let them become tax wasters? Or are we going to give them the opportunity to go to an institution of higher learning, pay full in-state tuition, which we do, and require them to be pursuing citizenship? The issue was really driven by economics.”
Criticized by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, leading in some GOP presidential polls, for not having a real plan for fixing Social Security, Perry told audiences in Iowa that the country needed to have a “grown-up conversation” about changing the program. His ideas included staggering the age at which people become eligible or subjecting them to a means test, installing a transitional period for adults in mid-career, even allowing local governments to establish their own programs, like Texas did in the 1980s.
When asked if he had a national job creation plan, Perry touted Texas’ employment history but stopped short of providing details, saying he expected to release his plan next week. “Over the course of the next few days and certainly weeks and months, we’ll be laying [it out] with specificity,” he said.
On this Iowa swing, Perry largely avoided the drama that’s trailed him in the last week, including allegations that he hadn’t done enough to rid a racial slur from the West Texas land his family rented for hunting and Friday’s endorsement by a Dallas mega-church pastor who called Mormonism — Romney’s faith — a cult.
At an Irish pub in Sioux City, a restaurant amid rolling cornfields in Orange City and a Pizza Ranch in Spencer, flanked by his wife, Anita, Perry beat the drum of jump-starting the economy, repealing federal health reform, wiping out federal regulations and balancing the budget.
With some rough debate performances behind him — and two more scheduled in the next two weeks — Perry repeated the “I’m just like you” message: Americans aren’t looking for the “most polished” candidate; they’re looking for “authentic conservative leadership.”
“The pundits don’t choose the next president of the United States. Iowans do,” Perry said. "You measure a leader by how they walk, not how they talk.”
But these Iowa voters had their yardsticks out — and on some subjects, they said, Perry didn’t measure up.
Perry fielded a question about how he’d work across the aisle with Democrats by saying he’d done so in 2003 in Texas, when he worked to pass tort reform — a theory Texas Democrats would largely dispute. “We still have a good number of Democrats in Texas,” Perry said. Then he finished the thought by suggesting many of the changes that America needs could come directly out of the president’s office.
Queried about whether he had a tax plan comparable to GOP candidate Herman Cain’s popular 9-9-9 plan, Perry said he thought there could be some kind of hybrid between a plan like Cain’s and the Fair Tax, a proposal to replace the income tax with a national sales tax.
When an attendee asked what he would do to “turn our many illegal immigrants into a positive for us,” Perry flipped the question around, taking the opportunity to say he’d done more in his tenure to secure the border than the federal government had done in the same time period, and promising to put “strategic fencing” — not a border wall — in place.
At one point, even Anita Perry broke her silence, reminding the audience that illegal immigrants who qualify for in-state tuition in Texas must be working toward citizenship.
Romney's camp, wasting no chance to hit Perry on immigration ahead of Tuesday night's Washington Post/Bloomberg debate in New Hampshire, released a statement on Saturday saying that Perry's "liberal immigration policies are out of step with Iowa values and wrong for our country. "
Perry’s stronger-than-usual answers on immigration and social security on Saturday appeared to quiet some of his critics. Ahead of Perry’s speech in Sioux City, farmer Jim Cross said he wasn’t “real excited about in-state tuition for illegal immigrants when we’ve got American citizens who can’t go to school.”
But after Perry’s speech, he softened his tone. “I’m still not sold 100 percent,” Cross said. “But one thing’s for sure: The federal government has tied his hands.”