DES MOINES – Rick Perry flipped pork on a grill Tuesday with the calm focus of the Air Force pilot he once was.
“Hey governor, do you grill much?” a man called out.
Without looking up from his task, the usually gregarious Perry answered quietly: “Nope.”
The answer left several beats of awkward silence.
“I don’t have time,” he finally added, still staring down at the rows of meat. “I spend my time in Iowa and in New Hampshire and in South Carolina.”
Grilling pork in a red apron, this Rick Perry is a different candidate than four years ago when he blew into this state fair as a frontrunner on a short-lived campaign sugar high.
With its livestock, carnival rides and deep-fried-everything, the Iowa State Fair seems little different from fairs and expositions that take place all across the state of Texas. But Iowa's fair comes with a special room set aside for reporters to file their reports every fourth year when the national political and media apparatus lands on the scene and turns the fair into a political circus.
If the former Texas governor has any chance of qualifying for the GOP debate looming next month, he must get his national polling numbers up. A captive press corps is oxygen to a struggling candidate like Perry who desperately needs to boost polling and campaign finances.
So grilling pork chops in Des Moines is where Perry must be. Unlike most other candidates, he put in two – not one – days at the fair.
He spent Tuesday doing a series of national media and local radio interviews. After one local interview, he and his smallish entourage walked the four-block stretch to a pork trade group’s booth to “eat his pork chop, ' one of the newer rituals at the fair. (Most campaigns now avoid “the corn dog photo" because candidates rarely come off well in photos eating that fair staple.)
The four-block walk took him forty minutes as Perry stopped to charm nearly every man, woman and child along the way.
Perry stuck around, and on that same concourse a day later he hit pay dirt.
Any candidate’s biggest moment at the fair is the “soapbox” speech, where he or she delivers stump remarks standing on a stage surrounded by hay bales. How many people stop to listen is an unscientific indicator of Iowa voter interest.
After months of political disappointment, hundreds of people either showed up or stopped by to hear Perry speak. One retiree said on her walk to the booth that part of the draw was his cameo in the 2005 movie “Man of the House.”
It was a cold day – 59 degrees — and Perry sported a fleece that said “U.S.S. Iowa.” His delivery was more fired up than usual. He added in a line about how he was “mad as hell” at Washington, D.C.
After the speech, a mob of dozens of television producers, reporters and cameramen pursued him, often in a full-on chase into an exhibition hall. The scrum attracted curiosity, and Iowans began to cautiously approach the group to investigate the spectacle and to meet Perry.
For a few moments on Wednesday morning, Rick Perry looked like a frontrunner.
“I’m drooling,” a thirty-something woman exclaimed as she watched the pack move by. She fanned herself for a moment and then walked away. But then she stopped short with her stroller and longingly looked back at him one more time.
“Handsome,” she yelled his way.
There weren't all fans around. Perry encountered a series of hecklers, including a young man who blurted out, “Oh, it’s Rick Perry! Oops! Sorry!”
It’s that word, — “oops” — that dogs him everywhere, even if it goes unspoken. Many candidates stumble or lose nominations, and go on with their lives and careers. But to so many, that 2011 debate moment when Perry lost his train of thought is an impression tattooed into their minds.
In theory, the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina do provide Perry an opportunity to erase that impression on an individual basis.
To do so, he peppers his speeches and conversations with esoteric terms that listeners may not even recognize.
When he criticized the president’s defense policies at Monday night event, he referred to “our Ohio-class subs, they’re at the end of their useful life” and he mentioned “liquefied natural gas” when discussing energy policy.
Amid all of this, the odds are long for Perry, given the 17 candidates vying with him for the party nomination.
But his team is optimistic, pointing to two of his rivals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, as beacons of hope.
Both men were political afterthoughts during their campaigns in the summers of 2007 and 2011. In the late fall of those years, each caught fire and eventually won the Iowa caucuses.
“I’m pretty sure Rick Santorum didn’t have very big crowds,” Perry said at one point on Wednesday.
Even some of his most devoted supporters recognize that for Perry, it’s a passive dynamic.
“Well, usually it’s like dominoes, they start falling and then there’s less dominoes and the power shifts,” said Karen McGettrick, a retired English teacher from Des Moines who said she came to the fair specifically to hear Perry. “And for him to win, the power’s got to shift to him, and it could happen."
“I think it could be good. I get concerned when I hear about the money thing,” she added. “But it still doesn’t mean that I don’t like him the best.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Rick Perry wearing orthopedic shoes at the Iowa State Fair.