HOLSTEIN, Iowa — Amid a crowd numbering nearly 100, Texas' longest-serving governor strolled through the front door here, kibitzed with a few aides, then headed over to a display case stocked with military rifles and award plaques. Hands in his pockets, he looked it up and down, standing by himself in a quiet corner of an otherwise bustling VFW hall.
Hovering under the radar has not always been a hallmark of Perry's long political career. But here, in the state that soundly rejected him during his ill-fated 2012 presidential campaign, he's doing just that, playing the role of the underdog workhorse just days away from a likely presidential announcement.
There is plenty of talk that the Perry Iowans are seeing is humbler and more modest this time, and it is manifested in everything from the kinds of events he is holding — low-key, no-frills meet-and-greets and town halls — to how he addresses voters, with no illusions about his political vulnerabilities. Yet even as he approaches the 2016 starting line as anything but the instant front-runner he was three years ago, Perry's trademark swagger is still intact.
"Last year nobody came to Iowa any more than I did,” Perry told reporters after a stop Monday in Le Mars, reminding them that he campaigned in the state for everyone from now-U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst to statehouse hopefuls. "That will pay dividends. I understand that’s how Iowans function, that’s how they keep score, so to speak, and I’ll be here a lot in 2015. I tell people, ‘If there’s going to be anybody who spends more time in Iowa than I do, they better pack a lunch.'"
The length and breadth of his most recent swing through the state — 11 stops in 10 cities and towns over four days — confirmed what has long been expected of any Perry comeback: It could start or end in the Hawkeye State, where Perry's conservative bona fides and raw political talent are a natural fit for a famously hard-to-please caucus electorate. He has spent more time in the state than most other potential candidates, and it is expected to be his first stop after an anticipated June 4 announcement back in Texas that he is launching a second bid for the White House.
Perry's recent trip gave Iowans one last chance to size up his shot at redemption, and for the most part, they liked what they heard.
"He's got this down," said Ilana Freedman, who saw Perry speak in Winterset. "I mean, he's really worked hard at this."
Yet Freedman conceded that the cringe-inducing memories of Perry's 2012 campaign still linger, and said his road to redemption will have to be paved with many more trips to Iowa. She and others noted that Perry does not just need a second chance in the state — he needs a second chance and then some to compete in a GOP field much stronger than the one he dropped out of three years ago.
"He has to make that happen," Freedman said. "He has to be up there, and he has to be so powerful that people will take a second look at him and not just write him off. He has to be the star, and that can happen very quickly."
By far, what seemed to resonate most with Perry's audiences was a forward-looking message that steered clear of partisan warfare. It won him positive reviews at the Iowa GOP's Lincoln Dinner on Saturday, perhaps his best-received cattle-call performance in recent memory, and throughout the week, people who came to see him called it refreshing if not entirely unique in the 2016 field.
"He was definitely talking more about the future," said Jack Rogers, a sophomore at Loras College, where former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stumped three days earlier. "We saw the same thing with Jeb Bush."
What "doesn't appeal to people here is when you come in and you bash Obama," Rogers added, estimating that Perry had just one line critical of Obama during a town hall Tuesday at the school. "I think he's going to do well with going into college campuses and talking about his optimism for the future rather than focusing on the past. And it's interesting because the whole field is going to be doing that."
Therein lies the problem with one of Perry's key strengths, Iowans said.
"It's going to be hard to stand out because there are some very exceptional people out there right now with him, so I really don't know," said Mary Clark, chairwoman of the Ida County GOP. "I don't know what it's going to take."
Perry worked hard — at times strenuously — to show Iowans he possesses qualities no other candidates does: the most salt-of-the-earth upbringing, life-altering military service and 14 years of executive experience as the longest-serving governor of Texas. At every possible turn, he sought to remind Iowans of his agricultural credentials, ranging from growing up on a dryland cotton farm in West Texas to serving as the state's agriculture commissioner.
Don Kass, chairman of the Plymouth County GOP, said Perry's emphasis on his biography has helped prove to rural Iowans he is a "real farmer, quote, unquote."
"Most of the people in this room I knew, and most of them either grew up on a farm or still work on one, including yours truly," Kass said after Perry spoke Monday in Le Mars. "You know, when I get home, I've got to vaccinate 500 feeder pigs — seriously."
In Le Mars and elsewhere, Perry got a chance to show off what Iowans say is by far his greatest asset: his retail skills. He enthusiastically shook hands, rubbed backs, wooed babies, took photos and — most ubiquitously — locked eyes with just about every person he spoke to, often using their first names and working in references to something they previously shared, such as their occupation or their grandma's bad hip.
If Perry has a calling card, that's it, his audiences said.
"That's kind of what he's going to have to live and die on — is his ability to connect with people," said Jacob Hall, a local sports writer who saw Perry speak Monday in Sioux Center. "Those things do matter, but in a crowded field, is that going to be what puts you over the top?"
Asked to explain why they thought Perry was an underdog — as early polling suggests — Iowans offered a variety of responses, ranging from his last run still haunting to him to the simple fact that he has not announced yet. Sounding a bit overwhelmed, some expressed hope the field would narrow down so they could compare a more manageable number of candidates.
"Why is he an underdog now?" asked Janice Burken, who saw Perry speak in DeWitt. "Because there's too many running!"
By all accounts, Perry sounded anything but the underdog as he traversed the state. Polished and personable, he gave Iowans who saw him few reasons to gripe about the fundamentals of stumping in their state. His stumbles were relatively minor. He survived a grilling by an Associated Press reporter at a national security forum Wednesday in Des Moines — by far the most challenging setting of the trip. Not unlike many hopefuls at this early stage, he sounded like a candidate trying to turn general philosophies into concrete positions on foreign-policy issues.
Brian Schmidt, a former candidate for the Iowa Senate whom Perry stumped for last year, said what Perry is trying to accomplish — a second chance at a first impression — is not foreign to the values of Iowans.
"When we really learn something is when he really fail at something," said Schmidt, who attended Perry's event in DeWitt. "When things don’t turn out the way that maybe we had hoped they would, that’s when we are able to assess what our weaknesses are and really strengthen our weaknesses, and Iowans recognize that and are anxious for what Gov. Perry has in the future."