Where did Rick Perry’s cowboy go? When the Texas governor burst onto the national scene to announce his presidential bid in South Carolina in August, the farmer’s son from Paint Creek, Texas, sported a Texas-sized swagger, two fine cuff links, and a favorite pair of brown ostrich cowboy boots with the words “liberty” and “freedom” emblazoned on them. But four months later and 20 points lower in the polls, Perry arrived at a Waverly, Iowa, meet-and-greet missing his Aggie bravado and—yes—his cowboy boots. “These are Ropers…sans the tops,” Perry told an inquisitive Iowan at the Fainting Goat restaurant when he was asked specifically where the ostrich pair had gone. The governor explained that he was wearing his work boots instead of the flashier numbers because the Ropers can better handle the cold and ice in the Midwest. “You see, I’ve learned a few things while in Iowa,” Perry said with a sheepish smile.
Among the other things Perry seems to have learned is that running for president may not be as easy as it looks. After making a splashy announcement to get into the race and rocketing to the front of the Republican field by mid-September—a USA Today poll showed him peaking at 31 percent—he is now at 14 percent in the Iowa polls, locked in a pitched—and humbling—battle with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for third place.
“Oh, I don’t even look at those polls. The only thing that matters is Tuesday,” Perry told me at a stop at Doughy Joey’s pizza restaurant in Waterloo.
Tuesday’s caucuses will be Perry’s first chance to consolidate the evangelical and conservative vote that he, Santorum, and Gingrich are fighting for as Mitt Romney and Ron Paul seem likely to cruise to first and second place finishes in the Hawkeye State. A third-place finish for Perry, Gingrich, or Santorum will guarantee the momentum, and likely donor support, to get through next week’s New Hampshire primary and on to the all-important South Carolina primary, where another evangelical-heavy Republican electorate awaits. Worse than third place in Iowa will make it difficult for any of the three to go on much longer.
To get to third, Perry is spending heavily on Iowa TV ads, with a massive $1.6 million buy through Sunday, blanketing the state with ads making the case that he, and not Gingrich or the surging Santorum, is the real choice for conservatives.
His message was the same at the Fainting Goat, where he spoke in front of about 100 enthusiastic, but mostly undecided, potential caucusgoers.“If we change a Democrat insider for a Republican insider, will it change anything in D.C.? I would suggest to you, no,” Perry told the group. “It’s going to take an outsider.” In a specific effort to push past Santorum, Perry is also hammering the former Pennsylvania senator in radio ads and on the stump by recounting Santorum’s support for hundreds of millions of dollars of earmarks during his time in Washington. At each stop on Friday, he went after Santorum repeatedly.
“Rick, I want you to explain why you voted for the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ in Alaska. I want you to explain why you voted for a Tea Pot Museum in North Carolina and an indoor rainforest in Iowa. And the Montana Sheep Institute? How come?”
With nods in the Waverly audience, Perry went on. “Not only that, but he voted to raise the debt ceiling eight times, more than doubling our debt, and puttin’ it on the backs of these young people,” Perry said. “How can you say that’s fiscally conservative?”
Weakened by embarrassing debate performances and dogged by frequent gaffes on the campaign trail (how many Supreme Court justices are there?), Perry occasionally spoke from notes during his speeches Friday and waded carefully into foreign policy only when questions came up.
Bombing Iran? “I would consider it,” he said slowly upstairs at Doughy Joey’s. “But it would have to be a last step and it would depend on a lot of other factors.” How would he handle China? “That’s a pretty broad question...”
Unlike Santorum, who ends his talks by imploring people to caucus, volunteer, get their neighbors to caucus and get them to volunteer, Perry ended each stop on Friday with a twangy, but less desperate, note: “If you’ll get my back next Tuesday, I promise you I’ll have your back for the next four years.”
The plain Texas talk and small-government platform seemed to win over Sharon Silliman in Waterloo, who said she was impressed by the governor and his to-the-point pitch, “He just seems like he’s honest,” she said. Honest is nice. But like Perry said, the only thing that matters is Tuesday.