DES MOINES — Fresh off his closest move yet to a 2016 presidential run, former Gov. Rick Perry embarked Saturday on a five-day swing through Iowa, emphatically looking to distinguish himself from a crowded field — much of it here this weekend with the same goal.
It is likely his last trip to the critical early-voting state before what is expected to be the official launch of his second bid for the White House. On Friday, he announced he will make a “special announcement” on June 4 in Dallas.
Perry's Saturday was highlighted by an evening address to the Iowa GOP's Lincoln Dinner, which featured 11 back-to-back, 10-minute timed speeches from White House hopefuls. His remarks were among the dinner's most upbeat, leaving little doubt about the optimistic message for which he was striving.
Quickly reminding the audience he is a "farm boy," Perry reflected on watching the cornfields whiz by as he traveled across Iowa earlier in the day.
"This is the good time of the year," said Perry, who grew up on a dryland cotton farm in West Texas. "This is the time when hope springs eternal. For those of us that grew up in these agricultural communities, this is the time that you look around and you went, 'We're going to have a great crop. We're going to have good prices.' And it just makes you feel good about who you are and what you were doing."
The GOP's massive crop of White House hopefuls was on the minds of many as they gathered for the Lincoln Dinner. The cattle call came at the end of a week in which party officials were said to be considering a cap on the number of candidates who can participate in primary debates, a move that has caused some heartburn among lower-tier contenders. Hawkeye State Republicans were nonetheless chipper about the crowded field Saturday evening, with Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kauffman likening the evening's lineup to a Baskin Robbins, the ice cream chain known for its 31 flavors.
Finding a competitive advantage has been especially imperative for Perry, whose polling remains stuck in the low single digits in Iowa and elsewhere. Asked Saturday afternoon how he sets himself apart from the flood of other candidates, he told reporters no one else has his 14 years of executive experience running a state as large as Texas.
But Perry has worked to distinguish himself in other ways, emphasizing his experience as an Air Force pilot. He referenced that credential Saturday afternoon in his answer to a question about Jade Helm 15, a military training exercise starting this summer across the Southwest that has spooked conspiracy theorists.
"We did operations from time to time back in the '70s, early '70s, out in the civilian world," Perry told a lunchtime crowd at the headquarters of the Cedar Rapids GOP. "To do operations in the civilian world is nothing out of the ordinary, and that's what this is."
"There are folks who have tried to create some great conspiracy, but I would suggest to you there are other places they might want to look than questioning whether or not our military operating in our public arena is of great concern," Perry added, offering his some of his most extensive remarks yet on the subject. The operation became a national story after Perry's successor, Greg Abbott, ordered the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on it.
Yet competition for the military mantle has emerged. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also served in the military, appears closer than ever to entering the race. After the dinner Saturday night, he signaled Perry would not be the only one campaigning on his status as a veteran.
"I know Rick is proud of his service, but one thing I will say is just not the fact I've been in the service — it's what I've learned from my time in the service," Graham told the Tribune. "I honestly believe I would be a very good commander in chief."
Perry and Graham were among the potential contenders who lingered late into the night here, shaking hands, slapping backs and taking photos in reception rooms set up by their political organizations. Perry's team had an ice cream sundae bar, a nod to what one flyer called the former governor's "favorite late night snack." It was his treat of choice following his indictment on abuse-of-power charges last year, and photos memorializing the now-famous trip to Sandy's Hamburgers in Austin hung in Perry's suite.
Throughout Saturday, Perry continued to play the role of the underdog, and while his Lincoln Dinner speech won positive reviews, attention inside the Iowa Events Center seemed to center on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Althea Cole, a local Republican activist who saw Perry at the Cedar Rapids GOP office, said things may change once Perry makes his 2016 campaign official.
"Right now, he stands at the bottom only because he hasn't declared yet," said Cole, who is backing retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. "As soon as he declares, he's going to shoot way up in the polls."
"I think he will have a pretty strong start in Iowa," she added, offering some analysis that may as well have foreshadowed Perry's agriculture-themed speech hours later. "June's the perfect time to declare."