WASHINGTON — It's a frequent whisper among Republicans in Iowa and the nation's capital: Don't count Rick Perry out just yet.
Dogged by the infamous "oops" moment of his failed 2012 presidential campaign and by an indictment related to a 2013 veto, Perry has mostly been an afterthought in early national speculation on the 2016 presidential race.
For the last month, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker commanded most of the political interest among the expected GOP field. Behind them is a second tier dominated by younger Republicans with fresh stump speeches: U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
There are also previous Iowa caucus winners in the mix, with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. And retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has been the beneficiary of grassroots passion.
The large group of likely contenders has made it difficult for Perry to break through the noise and make his case for the nomination.
But on the ground in Iowa, which will kick off the 2016 primary season, Perry is taken seriously.
"It would be foolish to sleep on Rick Perry's prospects in Iowa at this point," said former Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, an unaligned political consultant, reflecting many other operatives' opinions. "While other candidates deliberate on how to compete in Iowa, he's been quietly traveling the state and building relationships that weren't there for him four years ago."
The argument goes that Perry's ability to connect one-on-one with voters could quietly pull him to a surprise showing in the Iowa caucuses, which are known to reward retail politicking. It’s a counterintuitive strategy, given that Perry placed fifth there overall in 2012, winning only two of the state’s 99 counties.
But he's doing things differently now. He set up shop early and recruited noteworthy Iowa political talent for his operation, specifically Robert Haus and Andy Swanson.
Perry's weekend trip to the Iowa Ag Summit was his third visit to the state so far in 2015, and Iowans recall his frequent trips to the state to campaign for down-ballot candidates during the 2014 midterms.
That early Iowa organization mimics the strategies of the two most recent GOP caucus winners.
Huckabee and Santorum ran campaigns in previous cycles that were discounted early on. Huckabee carried the day in 2008, and Santorum stunned the political world with his 2012 Iowa win. Both are mulling 2016 bids.
“I think that the boost you get from doing well in Iowa, that’s the rocket fuel, if you will, that takes you into New Hampshire and takes you on into South Carolina,” Perry said in a February interview with The Texas Tribune and The Washington Post.
“So if you don’t do well in Iowa, I’m not going to say it takes you out of the mix, but it sure digs you a big hole,” he added.
Perry's strategy is to host small-venue events there this winter, engaging in much more retail politicking than in 2011. His stump speeches are crammed full of facts and statistics, an implicit acknowledgment of his 2011 debate failure. As he makes the rounds, he frequently talks about his efforts to be better prepared for this campaign.
And a number of Iowans are taking notice.
Retired teacher Sue Stock attended a Perry meet-and-greet on Friday night in Webster City, Iowa, and said his poor showings in the polls befuddled her.
"I don't understand it, really," she said.
Stock said she voted for Romney in 2012 but always had an affinity for Perry.
"I've been watching him all along," she added. "[Romney] didn't come across as presidential, and Rick Perry does."
On the trail, Perry touts his military experience and agriculture background to Iowans.
"Gov. Perry connects well with Iowans because he has a lot in common with many of them, from his service in the military to his work on the family farm," Perry spokesman Travis Considine said.
But Iowa anecdotes aside, Perry has barely registered on the national stage thus far. That new slate of GOP players frequently overshadows him.
Recently, Perry placed second-to-last in an Iowa poll, with the support of 3 percent of respondents. And when the presidential field speaks at conservative conferences, Perry often lands off-peak time speaking slots.
And it’s unlikely that he will have the Lone Star State's donors and political talent to himself.
Cruz is now the sitting Texas officeholder in the expected field and has the bully pulpit that Perry once occupied as governor for 14 years. By all accounts, Bush is leaning hard on his family’s Texas connections that could potentially cut into Perry’s fundraising base.
Bush raided Perry’s political team as well. About a month ago, the consulting firm of one of Perry’s advisers cut ties to join up with the Bush organization.
Still, Perry’s potential competitors remain wary of his work ethic.
A rival consultant told the Tribune that it is impossible to find a major GOP donor who has not already received the Perry fundraising pitch.
And though Perry no longer has the leverage of the office of governor of Texas, he has time. Lots of it. And he is spending that time in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina while his rivals are still tangled up in state business and Senate votes.
Many of his operative loyalists have moved on to other campaigns. But he’s held onto the support of a pair of highly regarded Mississippi brothers within GOP circles — Henry and Austin Barbour.
Austin Barbour announced on Thursday the formation of a Super PAC to support Perry in the campaign, and praised Perry as "not a guy who was born with a silver spoon in his hand" in a recent interview with the Tribune. He added that Perry's story is one that voters in Iowa and elsewhere can relate to.
Last cycle, Perry’s problems were largely related to his health, the timing of entry into the race and his preparedness. Several Republicans who have observed him on the trail and in television interviews agreed that he is a much-improved candidate.
But his biggest obstacle in the campaign is out of his control: He faces a significantly talented GOP field.
"The good news for Rick Perry is, most Iowans are going to give him a second chance," said Strawn, the Iowa operative. "The bad news for Rick Perry is the options for voters are a lot better than four years ago."
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report from Webster City, Iowa.