WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — It might have been the closing moments of a Texas governor’s race.
Ad man David Weeks lingered in a crowded doorway as aide Robert Black adjusted a sagging campaign sign, one of several being used for backdrops inside the Sheraton West Des Moines hotel. Longtime political allies, donors and friends smiled and cheered at all the appropriate times.
But in the few hours remaining before the results from the Iowa caucuses start pouring in, an unfamiliar air of nervousness and uncertainty hung over the crowd. None of them have ever seen Perry so far out of his comfort zone, so close to his first-ever defeat.
First lady Anita Perry took the stage to introduce her husband and warned she might cry even though her kids have told her not to. She still fought back tears, describing her husband as a dedicated military veteran who would steer the nation out of dark times.
“Our country’s finest deserve the finest,” she said.
Though it felt like a farewell of sorts, the stated purpose of the morning gathering was to fire up the “Texas strike force,” a politically connected band of lobbyists, lawmakers and volunteers who are fanning across Iowa to talk up the Texas governor when Iowans begin voting Tuesday night. After Perry spoke to them, they were given tips on how to attend the caucuses and become effective advocates for the governor.
There are more than 1,700 caucuses, meetings where voters debate and then vote on which candidate to support. The Perry campaign is hoping that the Texans who know him best will help give him a better-than-expected showing in the first contest of the 2012 race.
Polls show Perry struggling to remain in double digits here, stuck in fifth place, behind leaders Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and a now-surging Rick Santorum. Surrogates are already trying to tamp down expectations, noting that John McCain placed fourth in Iowa four years ago and went on to become the GOP nominee.
“Anytime you come to a state and you’re trying to explain yourself and sell yourself for the first time it’s a challenge,” Abbott said. “We believe this effort of all these Texans here is going to be very beneficial tonight when we see the returns come in.”
Perry supporters privately acknowledge the governor faces daunting odds, and a coming money crunch, unless things turn around quickly.
But the campaign has all the outward signs of an ongoing operation. Advance men are planning to drive his bus, plastered with the slogan “Faith, Jobs and Freedom,” to South Carolina for a barn-storming three-day swing that includes at least 11 stops. The governor is also planning to attend two debates in New Hampshire this weekend.
And Perry is increasingly describing Iowa as one step in a marathon race to the presidency. He conjured up some wartime imagery Tuesday morning to fire up the strike force, nicknamed “Perry’s posse.”
“This is Concord,” Perry yelled, referring to the famous early battle of the Revolutionary War. “This is Omaha Beach. This is going up the hill, realizing that the battle is worth winning.”