Hobbled by a series of stinging setbacks, Rick Perry is looking to regroup in a state he views as critical to his presidential prospects: Iowa, where his allies have long hoped for a slow and steady rise to the top.
But the hits keep coming for the former governor, who in the span of a month has missed the cut for the first Republican presidential debate, halted payments to his staff and watched a coveted Hawkeye State adviser depart for a hated rival's campaign.
Now, Perry's supporters are hoping he can rebound with a leaner-and-meaner staff, tougher contrasts with his GOP rivals and a little bit of luck in a volatile race.
"We are confident that Gov. Perry will have a defining breakout moment in this campaign that will change the dynamics of our work in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina," said Jamie Johnson, a Perry adviser focused on the early voting states.
Yet even as Perry allies seek to strike a hopeful tone, the indignities did not stop Tuesday when Sam Clovis, the prized Iowa operative who quit Perry's team a day earlier, announced he was joining the campaign of Donald Trump, the bomb-throwing billionaire whom Perry has criticized more than anyone else in the GOP field. Before a rally for Trump in Iowa, Clovis told reporters he is now national co-chairman of the New York developer's campaign and a senior policy adviser.
Asked why he jumped ship, Clovis brought up the Perry campaign's decision more than two weeks ago to stop paying its workers. At the time, Perry's high command gave staffers the green light to look for other work if necessary, an unflattering episode Clovis rehashed at a news conference broadcast live for national TV audiences.
"I think they were having to go back and restructure the campaign, and I felt it was the honorable thing to do for Gov. Perry — I think the world of him — to step aside so I wouldn't have to be part of the calculus of figuring out how to get me back on board," said Clovis, who is close with Chuck Laudner, another Iowa operative working for Trump.
Clovis' departure came the same day Perry's Iowa team learned of an imminent restructuring expected to reduce his footprint in the state. One staffer said more specifics on the restructuring are anticipated by the end of the week, but said it likely will include layoffs. Politico first reported the restructuring, which was raised during a conference call Monday with Perry's Iowa staffers. A campaign spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of the doom and gloom for Perry can be traced back to late July, when his national polling began to tick downward and he ultimately failed to qualify for the prime-time debate in Cleveland. Resigned to an undercard event, Perry was somewhat overshadowed by Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett Packard CEO whose performance was seen as boosting her out of the lower tier of GOP candidates.
"This is the first date, so to speak, and before Americans decide who they're going to marry, there's going to be a long process," Perry said at the time, downplaying the brouhaha surrounding the debate eligibility requirements.
After missing the cut for the top-tier event — a tough setback for a candidate who has vowed to be more prepared for the debate stage than he was during his last run — Perry's fundraising dried up and word spread that he was unable to pay staff in Austin and the early voting states. Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said Tuesday the campaign has started paying workers again in Iowa and South Carolina.
All the while, a pro-Perry super PAC has been preparing to pick up the slack for his cash-strapped campaign, which took in a meager $1 million during its first fundraising quarter. That number set off alarms within the ranks of the super PAC, known as the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, and it began mobilizing to prop up Perry in the Hawkeye State, where his allies have long believed his famous retail skills and under-the-radar work ethic could translate into a strong come-from-behind finish in the caucuses.
The Opportunity and Freedom PAC, which had raised $17 million as of earlier this summer, is recruiting dozens of field staffers and plans to be "fully operational" on the ground in Iowa on Sept. 1, according to a senior adviser to the group, Austin Barbour. The super PAC has had a field director and deputy in place for the past few weeks in Iowa, where it plans to return to the airwaves with a new round of TV advertising after Labor Day.
"We'll see what the results are on caucus day, but I think it will be as good of a ground game as anybody else will have in Iowa," Barbour said, adding that the group is hoping to propel Perry to a top-three finish come January.
Whether the super PAC can rescue Perry in Iowa is relatively uncharted territory in presidential politics, said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP. "I don't think any of us know the answer to that," he added.
"There’s no question Gov. Perry has impressed Iowa Republicans with his retail skills and the team that he put together," Strawn said. "The challenge going forward is, in a field of credible alternatives, how he can build on the reservoir of good will to stay on the shortlist of Iowa caucusgoers."
Meanwhile, Perry's pitch to Republican primary voters has taken a sharper tone. In a speech to conservative activists Saturday in Ohio, he lobbed thinly veiled barbs at the other GOP governors running for president, including Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, John Kasich of Ohio and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. His overall message seemed tailored to a stage of the 2016 race in which the GOP hopefuls seen as the most convincing anti-Washington forces — Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — have seen their fortunes rise.
"My fellow Republicans, we don't have to settle for 11th-hour campaign conversions to conservatism," Perry said at a Columbus meeting of a group started by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. "I've been with you every step of the way."
His remarks caught the attention of the super PAC, which released a minute-long recap of the speech Monday that ended with an echo of Perry's argument that "things were a little different when they were governors and not campaigning." Barbour said the speech fit a theme that Perry is apparently warming up to: He was "anti-status quo before anti-status quo was cool."
It remains to be seen how much Perry will be able to amplify that message in the Hawkeye State as his campaign prepares to scale back there. Dawn Pettengill, an Iowa state representative who has endorsed Perry, said Tuesday she was sticking with him while expressing some frustration with Clovis, who told the Des Moines Register on Monday that he had not heard from Perry's team in 10 days.
"If you’re the Iowa chairman, and you’re waiting on the campaign to call you — come on, you are the campaign," she said, suggesting Perry's team may be better off without Clovis. She added: "You don't have to pay me. I'm still here. I'm still behind you."