STORM LAKE, Iowa – In the past week, many have invoked Rick Perry’s farming background to describe his campaign’s current famine days.
But on the Iowa campaign trail, the former Texas governor drew on his past life as a runner to predict that his campaign will ride out a financial stretch that is so difficult that he cannot pay his staff.
“This is a marathon. This isn’t a sprint,” the Republican told reporters on Monday as he kicked off a three-day swing through Iowa that is expected to include appearances at the Iowa State Fair, a legendary rite of passage for presidential candidates.
Amid a campaign in financial crisis, Perry made two stops in Iowa on Monday. Along the way, he encountered unpaid but loyal staffers, a rival contender in former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and many questions about the viability of his organization.
On the surface, little had changed with the campaign since the revelation that his campaign is in such financial trouble that staffers are no longer being paid. Perry still had an entourage and still was an adept retail politician.
“We’ll get the economic side back on track,” he said. “That I’m not worried about.”
But Texas’ longest-serving governor is in a race against time. The task ahead of Perry and his band of unpaid staffers and loyalists is to make the case one-on-one in Iowa, and to raise enough money to keep the staff on board until the February caucuses.
In interviews with The Texas Tribune, staffers said they are loyal to the governor and will hang on with him as long as they can.
“I’m so proud of so many kids across the country who’ve been working with us,” Perry said. “They said, 'We believe in you. We believe what you’ve done. And we believe in your vision for this country. And we’re going to be working. We’re going to stick around here and be helping you.'”
Older, more seasoned consultants and aides were calm. Politics is an unpredictable business, much like the Texas oil business. And so it’s considered smart financial sense in the political consulting world to sock away money for unpredictable circumstances.
But younger staffers are not so secure, and other presidential campaigns are circling above to hire them away from Perry. And so the pressure is on Perry.
“It’s all going to depend on people’s financial needs, personally,” said campaign senior director Jamie Johnson, who is based in Iowa. “All I can say is the governor is doing his best to raise the hard cash for his campaign.”
“None of us are asking him, 'When is the money coming?’”Johnson added. “We are all working as volunteers, even though we didn’t start out that way, but we believe so much in this man that we’re not abandoning him.”
Perry indicated that help is on the way but gave no specific figure on how much he has raised, and staffers say they are still not taking a salary.
“Last week was one of the best economic weeks that we’ve had since the campaign started,” Perry said. “We had close to a record if not a record online amount of money that came in.”
He also noted that his campaign's allied super PAC, which cannot coordinate with him directly, is well-funded.
“It’s my understanding the super PAC has an extraordinary amount of dollars, they’re going to be out telling our story, so we’ll make this," he said.
That super PAC, Opportunity and Freedom PAC, raised nearly $17 million in the first half of this year, and is in a position to offer Perry air cover on television.
There were also indications of geographic consolidation. When asked if the campaign will increase its emphasis on Iowa over other early states, Johnson indicated that was a fair assumption.
It was a small showing at Perry’s meet-and-greet in Storm Lake – around 15 attendees. But organizers blamed his delayed flight, and the event took place during business hours on a Monday afternoon.
The voters who were there were true believers, backers from his 2012 campaign. One woman presented to him a coin with his image from the past campaign, indicating her loyalty to the former governor.
Generally, Republican voters interviewed on Monday were oblivious to or did not care about Perry’s campaign problems.
Iowa state Sen. David Johnson campaigned with Perry in 2011 and signed up with him again in 2012. He acknowledged Perry's reality at a barbecue GOP fundraising event Monday evening in Kimballton, Iowa.
“Obviously, the next couple of weeks are critical in moving numbers up for Gov. Perry,” he said. “It’s a real plus to have him here in western Iowa, which is red-meat country. This is where Republicans far outnumber Democrats, and we’re going to have to pull a lot of caucus votes.”
He went on to compare Perry to former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum’s come-from-behind Iowa caucus performance in 2012.
Those numbers David Johnson referred to are the national polls that will decide whether Perry participates in the top-tier GOP debates in the months ahead. But Tuesday morning presented the campaign with more grim news: CNN released a national poll showing him in 12th place. If that poll is factored into CNN's qualifying calculations, he is too far behind to qualify for the network's own top-tier debate on Sept. 16.
In Kimballton, as Perry worked the crowd, Fiorina approached him from behind and quietly waited for him to finish his conversation.
“Look at you, cowgirl!” he exclaimed when he turned and saw the polished former executive in a pink plaid shirt, blue jeans and dress cowboy boots. “You look like you just got off a John Deere tractor.”
He seemed genuinely pleased to see her and revealed no jealousy over the fact that she, not he, gained momentum from the second-tier Fox News GOP debate earlier this month.
If he is to qualify for the top-tier debate next month, he must leapfrog her or another one or two GOP candidates in national polling.
And that is the ongoing predicament of Rick Perry. He is a better candidate than he was in 2011, but he competes against better rivals this time.
Both Perry and Fiorina complimented each other in their stump speeches to a crowd of about 350 party faithful. They both recalled a time when he was governor and she was the CEO of a major company and their negotiations with each other.
“You heard from an extraordinary individual and a great American, I might add, born in Texas: Carly Fiorina,” Perry said in front of a corn field. “Carly is a great asset to this country.”
“I’ve negotiated with Carly,” he said with a sheepish laugh. “Let me tell you, she can bring it.”