Perry going for broke in Iowa with 3 weeks left

Published 11:59 am Monday, December 12, 2011

AMES, Iowa — Seen just four months ago as conservatives’ potential savior, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry is fighting for his life in Iowa.

With three weeks until Iowa’s leadoff caucuses, the Texas governor has retooled his message from the strict jobs focus he began with in August to one promoting him as a conservative outsider.

And he’s doubled down on television advertising for the home stretch, having already spent more than $2 million in Iowa only to see his support remain in single digits.

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Perry’s revamped charge to the Jan. 3 caucuses is a sign of the pressure he faces to revive his faltering national campaign. And it’s far from clear whether it’s working.

“I’ll suggest to you, we’ve got to send an outsider to Washington, D.C., that is willing to stand up to all those special interests,” Perry told more than 200 people crammed into a cozy coffee shop near Iowa State University Sunday.

It’s a far cry from the “get America working again” theme he carried into the race in August, touting Texas’ nation-leading job growth during his 10 years as governor. And it’s not clear Perry is accustomed to the new approach.

Perry entered the race hoping to cobble together a coalition of economic, Christian and tea party conservatives. After a hot start with fundraising in September, however, he fumbled his way through a series of nationally televised debates.

Meanwhile, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a former private sector executive, managed to hold on to the mantle of the party’s chief economic candidate. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the new national and Iowa leader of the GOP race, emerged as a candidate seen to have the most experience.

Perry has fallen back on his Christian faith, with two recent ads promoting Christian themes. He has also campaigned at forums sponsored by conservative evangelical groups.

Despite the difficulties, Perry has retained an upbeat demeanor on the campaign trail, and has been at ease meeting voters one-on-one.

It’s an asset his campaign hopes to feature during the 14-day Iowa bus tour he begins in northwest Iowa on Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s debate in Sioux City, the final debate before the caucuses.

It’s a chance for him to feature his courtly charm, as he did promoting the daily blend for sale at Café Diem in Ames. “It’s a light little coffee,” he said with a grin.

In a barbershop in Beaufort, S.C., last week, Perry was asked how he was coping with campaigning after undergoing back surgery last summer.

“I’ve gotten my second wind,” Perry replied, rocking in his black orthopedic shoes.

Whether Perry can claw his way back into contention is unclear.

Last week, he opened a new line of attack against Romney and Gingrich, pointing out their past support for requiring people to acquire health insurance, a mandate very unpopular with conservatives.

Perry began airing an ad in Iowa attacking the two for the position, and jabbed at both on the issue during Saturday’s nationally televised debate from Des Moines. Perry’s back-and-forth with Romney on the health care mandate produced its most memorable moment, when Romney tried to bet Perry $10,000 that the Texan had misstated his position.

Still, Perry has at times failed to press the attack on other Republicans.

On Sunday in Iowa, he failed to remind his audience that Romney and Gingrich had supported a key principle of the health care law President Barack Obama signed last year.

“I don’t think you need to be forced to buy a product, a private product, like insurance. That is not government’s role to demand that you buy that. That’s one of the reasons I think this is an unconstitutional piece of legislation,” Perry said, outlining the key objection conservatives have to Obama’s chief policy accomplishment.

Ames Republican Bill McCall, who came to see Perry, said the candidate seemed hesitant to make the sale.

“He could have said: ‘Did you see the debate last night? Well, then you know what I told Romney and Gingrich,’” said McCall, a retired engineer who is undecided and considering Perry. “But it’s like he didn’t know how to handle the audience. We were ready, and he couldn’t close the deal.”