DES MOINES, Iowa — If Gov. Rick Perry falls short in the Iowa caucuses, an increasingly likely outcome, there may be a feeling among frustrated supporters and objective observers alike: He could have had this.
In these last unseasonably warm days before the Jan. 3 caucuses, the Texas governor has appeared to finally find his stride, resembling more the candidate who jetted to the front of the GOP field in August than the one who bumbled debate performances this fall.
During the second leg of his Iowa bus tour, Perry rolled out a well-oiled stump speech that put the candidate known as a brawler in his home state in familiar territory, hitting heavily on his differences with his GOP rivals.
“Why should you settle for anything less than an authentic conservative who’s going to fight for your views and your values without apology?” he asked Iowans time after time. “You’ve got to ask yourselves, if we replace a Democrat insider with a Republican insider, is Washington going to change?”
His Washington-outsider, limited-government message met with friendly and often enthusiastic crowds that packed Iowa coffee shops, sports bars and pizza joints well in advance of his arrival. His plans to repeal federal health care reform, pass a balanced budget amendment and institute a part-time Congress rarely failed to draw applause.
He also tugged Iowans' evangelical heartstrings, touting his work to defund Planned Parenthood in Texas and revealing his personal “transformation” on abortion, proclaiming that he no longer supported it in cases of rape or incest. Frequently near the end of his stump, he'd quote the Book of Ezekiel.
"God was asking, 'Who shall I send? Who will go for us?' And Isaiah said, 'Here am I — send me,’" Perry said. "Well, here I am. Send me. This is your country. Taking her back is our challenge."
Though the recent run in Iowa was not without the occasional stumble — in Cedar Rapids he failed to remember a landmark 2003 Supreme Court case Texas litigated while he was governor that overturned anti-sodomy laws — Perry frequently displayed his skill at the retail side of politics.
At an early morning breakfast in Urbandale, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio — who accompanied the governor for the first two days of the tour — mistakenly referred to the audience as Buckeyes, their interconference foes. Perry took the podium and smoothed the ruffled feathers: “Boy, you really know how to get an Iowa crowd riled up.” He later teased the sheriff that he was “never going to live that one down.”
It was an effective, and surprising, off-the-cuff recovery for a candidate who during a debate famously mangled a rehearsed line listing the number of federal agencies he’d abolish as president. That moment represented what strategists hoped to accomplish with the old-fashioned Iowa bus tour, which they launched in December after months of single-digit poll numbers, hoping to give voters a “second look” at the governor who once claimed front-runner status.
It has helped, but the tour, with 42 stops in 44 cities over a two-week period, has not yet led the governor to recover his once-formidable momentum. As former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum’s rocketing poll numbers indicate, Perry has not been able to solidify his position as the conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Perry has spent an estimated $4.3 million in advertising, more than any other candidate. Still, Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll, regarded as the gold standard in predicting caucus outcomes, put the governor in fifth place with 11 percent, a point behind former U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich.
The poll showed Romney in first at 24 percent, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas in second at 22 percent and Santorum in third with 15 percent. Perhaps more disappointing to the Perry campaign are the last two days of the four-day poll, which showed Santorum surging in front of Paul to 21 percent, while Perry’s numbers remained steady.
Perry’s support of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in Texas has continued to be a stumbling block for the governor. And his campaign has recently been dogged by reports of internal conflict.
Consultant David Johnson of Oskaloosa repeated a common refrain among some undecided Iowans who attended his campaign events: "I loved him on a lot of things. But once you've spent taxpayer money to pay for illegal aliens to go to school, that's it.”
On Saturday, during one of the tour’s last stops in Boone, Perry was again asked to clarify his position on the Texas law. He defended it in economic terms, saying that members of the Legislature didn’t want to create “tax wasters.”
“We could either kick the can down the road,” he said, “or we could require them to get in line to get their citizenship and have them pay full in-state tuition to go to a university or community college.”
Perry supporters who are still holding out for a dark-horse finish point to the number of Iowans who remain undecided: 41 percent of those polled said they could still be persuaded to support another candidate. And Perry has pulled in a “mighty strike force” of some 350 volunteers, including high-profile surrogates like Bobby Jindal, Steve Forbes and Sam Brownback, along with Texas statewide officials Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney General Greg Abbott and Comptroller Susan Combs. By the afternoon on New Year’s Day, campaign staff said they had made more than 15,000 calls to potential voters.
If it’s “God’s will,” Perry has said that he’ll press on after Iowa, no matter how he finishes on Tuesday. He has events scheduled in Aiken County, S.C., on Wednesday and is set to participate in two New Hampshire debates at the end of the week.
But he needs a strong showing in the Hawkeye State to attract the donors to replenish his campaign coffer, which since October has been dwindling. Without it, the governor who has never lost a race in his home state could be forced to return home sooner than he planned.