DES MOINES, Iowa — Just a few minutes earlier, he was standing in front of plant workers in eastern Iowa, vowing to shake up Washington by creating a part-time Congress, ending lifetime appointments for federal judges and shuttering dysfunctional agencies.
Now, speech concluded, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is seated on the edge of a platform on the factory floor, scrolling through his smartphone to show 5-year-old Izzie Insisiengmay photos of the Perry family dogs.
Izzie is way too young to vote. But her mom, standing nearby, is a strong bet to attend the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. For the moment, Stacey Insisiengmay of Davenport is undecided. But after watching the gregarious 61-year-old Texas governor, she says, "I like him so far."
That moment inside the Schebler plant on the banks of the upper Mississippi River illustrates one of Perry's inherent political strengths — his ability to connect with people. Campaign professionals call it retail politics. And Perry will need all he can deliver — plus much more — to rescue his foundering campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
The Iowa caucuses — a fixture in American presidential politics for nearly four decades — could well decide whether Perry can climb back off the mat or be forced to fold a once-promising candidacy. He needs to turn in an impressive showing in Iowa to rebuild momentum and advance into critical Southern primaries in South Carolina and Florida later in January.
With just over six weeks before Iowa caucus-goers cast the first votes in the 2012 presidential season, Perry has a lot of work to do.
He was running fifth in Iowa with 7 percent support in a Bloomberg News poll released last week. Atlanta businessman Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were bunched together in a statistical dead heat for first place.
For Perry, a former front-runner who has never lost an election in a 27-year political career, failure to no longer rank as a potential contender is a stunning reversal.
"He's having a very difficult go of things," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll. "He needs to establish himself as a credible candidate. He needs to ground himself in Iowa."
The formula for a potential Perry comeback in the Hawkeye State includes a strong on-the-ground political organization, relentless television advertising, a message tailored to Iowa's farm-belt conservatives and stepped-up appearances by Perry to get him in front of as many voters as possible. Eye-catching policy proposals — including his proposed Washington reforms and his call for a 20 percent optional flat tax — are also part of the mix.
One hopeful sign for Perry is the fact that many likely caucus-goers haven't firmly committed to any candidate. Bloomberg's poll found that 60 percent of those surveyed could be persuaded to back someone other than their top choice. Ten percent were undecided.
There were also indications last week that Perry was picking up converts after a two-day Iowa trip that included his policy address to "uproot" all three branches of the federal government.
"I think that was one of the best speeches that I've heard from Perry," said Scott County Republican Chairwoman Judy Davidson of Bettendorf, who is neutral in the race. "He might have gained some additional support. I think people were impressed."
Iowans also appeared to be taking a forgiving attitude toward Perry's memory lapse in a debate the previous week, when he was unable to recall one of the three agencies he wanted to eliminate. His audience at a Ronald Reagan dinner in Bettendorf burst into laughter and applause when Perry cited Washington's tendency to create new agencies, then added: "And I can remember most of them."
Perry has made a dozen trips to Iowa since launching his campaign on Aug. 13 and is expected to step up the pace in the countdown toward the caucuses, sounding his message of job-creation, limited government, a strong defense and condemnation of Washington.
Robust fundraising, which pulled in $17 million over a seven-week period, is also helping extend Perry's visibility through TV ads that accent Perry's homespun values and rural upbringing as the son of West Texas tenant farmers. The campaign spent more than $750,000 on radio and television advertising over a two-week period, according to a tabulation obtained by the Quad-City Times.
The overarching game plan, says campaign co-chairman Matt Whitaker of Des Moines, a former U.S. prosecutor, is to convince Iowans that Perry is the "conservative choice and is in it for the long haul."
"At the end of the day," Whitaker adds, "he's going to provide a very comfortable home for conservatives in the state of Iowa."
Nevertheless, Perry's plummet into single digits has raised serious doubts about his staying power and future fundraising ability, prompting many voters to look elsewhere. Perry stormed into the lead just days after entering the race but began sliding in the polls after poor debate performances including the infamous "oops" moment earlier this month.
Controversial positions as governor — including his support of a law permitting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and his 2007 order requiring schoolgirls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer — also has cost him support among conservatives.
Some Republicans also still harbor resentment over Perry's decision to make his campaign announcement in South Carolina on the same days that Iowa Republicans were conducting a straw poll in Ames. Bill Royster of LeClaire says he believes the way Perry handled his announcement was "very improper."
But other voters, even those who feel Perry may not be able to rebound, say there's a lot to like about him, including his strong stance against abortion, his service as an Air Force pilot, his executive experience as Texas' longest-serving governor and his promise to create more than 3 million jobs if he gets elected.
"I really think as a person, he's very genuine," says Barbara Havenner, a Bettendorf homemaker who attended Perry's speech at the Schebler plant.
Team Perry boasts one of the biggest campaign operations in the state. Headquartered in an office complex in the town of West Des Moines, the Perry campaign has 11 paid staffers, including four aides who served on dropout candidate Tim Pawlenty's campaign. Matt Gronewald, 30, a former deputy executive director of the state Republican Party, is campaign director.
The campaign's two co-chairmen are Whitaker and Robert Haus, vice president of a Des Moines public affairs company who participated in the presidential campaigns of former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and publisher Steve Forbes. Haus' wife, Ruth Haus, a former White House aide and a veteran of caucus campaigns, serves as the campaign's paid senior adviser.
Like others, the Perry campaign strategy is tailored to reach the more than 100,000 Iowans expected to turn out for the caucuses, the starting point for the ultimate selection of delegates to the Republican National Convention.
The caucuses, often portrayed as the epitome of grassroots democracy, will take place in the state's approximately 1,780 precincts, as participants gather in schools, community centers, churches and homes to conduct preliminary business and vote on presidential choices. Surrogates, many of them wearing campaign T-shirts, will speak on behalf of the various candidates.
Armed with mammoth lists of past caucus-goers obtained from Republican state headquarters, campaign workers engage in exhaustive telephone and email assaults to identify supporters and make their case to potential converts. The Perry campaign has the third-highest rate of voter contacts, behind Paul and Rep. Michele Bachmann of neighboring Minnesota, according to the Bloomberg Poll.
Kathy Potts of Cedar Rapids, who heads Perry's efforts in Linn County, said she has made more than 500 calls in the last three weeks.
"We don't really care about polls because it depends on how many people we can get to the caucuses," she said.
A mother of four whose youngest son just joined the Army, Potts said she became a Perry fan after meeting the Texas governor when he visited Iowa in 2008 to campaign for Rudy Giuliani.
"I really liked him," she said. "I was hoping he would run, and when he did I signed up."
The ultimate fate of the campaign rests with the man in the driver's seat.
Making his first bid for national office, Perry has reached for votes at venues ranging from the Iowa State Fair to the world's largest truck stop near Walcott. He seemed well-received during his two appearances in eastern Iowa last week as he bashed the Obama administration, assailed "Beltway profiteers" and repeated his promise to "take a sledgehammer" to the Washington political establishment.
At one point, he prompted whoops and cheers by promising a "permanent stop to federal funding for Planned Parenthood" and declaring that "our tax dollars should never be used ... to take an innocent unborn life."
He also presented himself as "a Washington outsider" who will get the nation back on track. "I'm unique in this Republican field. I've never been an establishment figure," he said. "I've never served in Congress. Never been a part of an administration. I've never been a paid lobbyist."
Hu Dunn and his wife, Joanne Mercer, who turned out for Perry's appearance at the Schebler plant, gave Perry good reviews.
"It was a very good speech," said Mercer.
Enough for her to cast a vote for Perry at next month's caucuses?
"I'm certainly thinking of it," she replied.
(Dave Montgomery is the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief.)
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