DES MOINES, Iowa — If Iowa voters are going to give Gov. Rick Perry the second look he wants, there's not much time for browsing.
With just three weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, the governor is embarking on an old-fashioned bus tour through the Hawkeye State, hoping his natural ability to connect with voters will keep his struggling campaign alive.
Perry has scheduled nearly 50 events between Wednesday and Jan. 2. By the time the tour ends, he will have visited some 42 towns and cities.
“Being on a bus in a state like Iowa, it just allows us to get to more stops and more places. It allows people driving down the road in Iowa to honk and wave,” said Perry campaign manager Rob Johnson. “There’s an excitement and an energy. … We’re excited about the next couple of weeks.”
Perry had briefly taken the lead in Iowa late this summer, overtaking Michele Bachmann after she won the Iowa Straw Poll. But a series of poor debate performances and gaffes took their toll on his candidacy. At one point he polled as low as 5 percent here.
Recent surveys show Perry has been trending back up a bit, though, and he is hoping to capitalize.
A RealClearPolitics average of polls showed Perry at 6 percent at the beginning of December. He’s closer to 10 percent now, the average shows.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the latest front-runner to emerge in the ever-changing Republican race. Following in second place is Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has been unleashing a torrent of negative attacks against Gingrich.
Conventional wisdom is that only the top three candidates move on from Iowa. And while coming out on top seems unlikely for Perry — barring another major shakeup between now and Jan. 3 — advisers believe Perry is within striking distance of third place. They are hoping a strong showing here can spark a comeback and put him in good shape to win the South Carolina primary, the first southern contest, on Jan. 21. (The New Hampshire primary falls on Jan. 10, but it’s a far steeper climb for Perry in the northeastern state.)
If Perry is to place third in Iowa, surveys suggest he’ll first have to knock out another Texan — U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Lake Jackson. The libertarian-leaning congressman is in third place in the Hawkeye Poll, but only by a couple of points.
Paul’s fervent supporters and strong organization, though, will be tough to beat.
The caucuses are a different beast from what happens in a typical primary state. Instead of two weeks of early voting – Iowans only have one shot at picking their candidate, starting at 7 p.m. on Jan. 3.
“Which means that if you work second shift or if the babysitter doesn’t show up or the car breaks down or there’s a blizzard, you can’t participate because you have to be there at 7 o’clock,” said Drake University politics professor Dennis Goldford.
That means campaign organization is key to getting supporters to turn out. Goldford said the candidates need boots on the ground, with lists of supporters and people to call. But all that organization, he said, doesn't mean much if the candidate doesn't have some momentum leading into the final days.
“The traditional view about the caucuses is that you work, work, work and then got hot at the end,” Goldford said.
That’s just what the Perry campaign hopes will happen with its 16-day tour across Iowa. A recent poll by the Des Moines Register ranked the governor second among candidates the voters want to see before the caucus.
Perry packed a cafe in Ames on Sunday, rousing supporters with fiery tirades against Washington and promises to cut bloated government. A few protesters shouted at the governor, one of them yelling, “Go back to Texas.” If it bothered Perry, it didn’t show.
Republican Renee Twedt from Story City is skeptical of how well Perry's big bus tour will work, especially if his events are like the one she attended in Ames on Saturday. Perry was late. The speech was short, and he didn't take any questions. “No, (the bus tour) won’t bring support,” she said.