DES MOINES, Iowa — They both reside in the Lone Star State, but in many other respects, Rick Perry and Ron Paul are as different as Paint Creek and Pittsburgh.
For the two Texans in the 2012 presidential race, the path toward Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses and beyond has been marked by shifting fortunes.
Rep. Paul, fueled by an unorthodox message that has amassed a loyal and growing band of followers, has bounded from the middle of the Republican pack to within striking distance of winning the first-in-the-nation presidential contest.
By contrast, the Iowa caucuses could determine whether Gov. Perry becomes an early casualty or continues his pursuit for the White House. The Texas governor enjoyed a brief stint as the Republican front-runner but later slumped in the polls following weak debate performances. He needs a strong showing in Iowa to stay alive in the race.
Their contrasting stature in the pre-caucus polls isn’t the only thing that separates the two Texas candidates. Although they both portray themselves as staunch conservatives, they differ sharply when it comes to style, background and presentation.
Perry, 61, the son of west Texas tenant farmers in the small community of Paint Creek, often displays the kind of bravado that the rest of the nation expects from Texas political figures. His rugged good looks draw comparisons with the “Marlboro Man.”
Paul, who was born in Pittsburgh and raised on a farm in west Pennsylvania, moved to Texas in 1968 to begin a successful practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist, delivering more than 4,000 babies. He has since gone on to serve nearly a quarter-century in Congress over three different periods.
Paul represents a largely coastal district near Houston, but unlike Perry, there is little about his style or appearance that would automatically conjure up stereotypical images of the Lone Star State. One potential caucus-goer at a recent Paul event said she had forgotten that the 76-year- old candidate was from Texas.
The Texas candidates are similar in some respects. They are the only two contenders in the race with military experience _ Perry was an Air Force pilot and Paul was an Air Force flight surgeon.
They also have both promised to attack federal spending and want to shrink the federal bureaucracy. Paul would cut at least five federal agencies. Perry would abolish at least three.
They both want to slash foreign aid, but they differ sharply on other aspects of foreign policy, particularly over Paul’s opposition to sanctions aimed against Iran’s nuclear program. Perry has called for a tough line that includes freezing assets of the Iranian central bank.
“You don’t have to vote for a candidate who will allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Because America will be next,” Perry said recently in an obvious reference to Paul. “I’m here to say: You have a choice.”
The governor and the congressman have had a prickly relationship throughout the presidential race. Shortly after Perry became a candidate in mid-August, Paul released an ad reminding voters that Perry, as a Democrat, had endorsed Al Gore for president in 1988 before switching parties the following year.
Citing his early backing of Ronald Reagan, Paul said in the ad that “America must decide who to trust: Al Gore’s Texas cheerleader or the one who stood with Reagan.”
In a subsequent debate, Paul also accused Perry of raising taxes and boosting the debt, seeking to raise doubts about Perry’s claims of Texas job creation. “I don’t want to offend the governor because he might raise my taxes or something,” Paul said.
Perry, who vigorously disputed Paul’s assertions, has also implicitly included the longtime congressman in recent ads pointing out that several of his opponents, including Paul, have a cumulative total of 63 years in current or former service in Congress, suggesting that they have been part of the problem in Washington.
The Texans are displaying their differing styles and campaign messages as all seven candidates scramble to build support in advance of the caucuses.
Paul appeared before upward of a 100 potential caucus-goers in the central Iowa town of Perry, which the Texas governor will symbolically visit in a caucus-eve appearance on Monday. The congressman outlined key themes of his candidacy, including a pledge to comply with the Constitution, audit the Federal Reserve and rein in U.S. involvement abroad.
“If we can send a very, very strong message coming out of Iowa, it will play a large role in changing the direction of this country,” Paul said in urging Iowans “to join me in this effort.”
Several hours later, Perry addressed roughly a same-sized audience in Marshalltown, sometimes drawing laughter with jabs of humor.
“I love Iowa pork, but government pork I cannot stand,” Perry declared, portraying himself as an “outsider” who will upend business-as-usual in Washington.
“If you will have my back next Tuesday,” Perry told potential caucus-goers, “I will have your back in Washington for the next four years.”
(Montgomery is the Austin bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram).
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