Waterloo, Iowa — Less than 24 hours after jumping into the presidential race, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas stormed Rep. Michele Bachmann’s hometown Sunday. Speaking below a glittering disco ball at the Electric Park Ballroom, a dusty dance hall, Perry signaled his intention to challenge the Minnesota Republican, who won the Ames Straw Poll over the weekend, in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses. “Sometimes it takes me a while to get into something, like this presidential race,” he said, crouching down on the dais. “But let me tell ya,” he roared, “When I’m in, I’m in all the way.”
Bachmann was not amused. She subtly punched back at Perry for crashing her turf, speaking minutes later. In her 30-minute talk, she did not once mention Perry by name, nor welcome him to the state. The icy approach was clear from the start, when Bachmann waited until Perry was seated to step off her bus and enter the building. Once onstage, Bachmann drew clear lines between her and the Texan, pointing out that while some fight outside of Washington, she is in the Beltway every day, taking on the Obama administration. “The poison water of Washington didn’t change me,” she said. “I went there and fought. I fought when it wasn’t convenient.”
But for the moment, it was Perry who outshined Bachmann. The Lincoln Day dinner crowd, packed at round tables and plastic chairs, cheered his rousing remarks, which emphasized his constitutional conservatism and his ability to shepherd job creation. With Bachmann waiting outside on her bus for much of the evening, Perry was the night’s star, diving into the crowd to mingle in his cowboy boots and dark suit. Bachmann, meanwhile, mostly stayed up on stage after her speech, signing autographs under the watchful eye of her campaign aides.
Both were greeted as top-tier candidates, but Perry was noticeably looser, talking about his childhood in Paint Creek, Texas, with grandmothers and young children who stopped by his table or tugged his jacket. The small talk mattered. As Waterloo conservatives departed, there were grumbles that Bachmann should have broken bread with the activists. Perry, even in Bachmann’s political base, was able to make major inroads. “It was kind of like dad was coming home,” chuckles Reed Bannon, a Waterloo businessman. “Once he got up there, everyone kind of knew it was time to sit up, shut up, stop slouching, and eat your vegetables.”
Kendall Tate, a local corn farmer, agrees. He says that he has not seen Perry’s ability to mesh flinty conservatism with Bible Belt charm in decades. “When I watched the governor, it was almost like watching Reagan,” he says. Indeed, Perry, unlike many late contenders, is not rattled by the spotlight. He worked the Waterloo crowd with ease, munching on peach pie and shaking hands, beaming for a flurry of snapshots. Jim Mudd, a businessman from nearby Cedar Falls, sat next to Perry during dinner. He had never met the governor before, nor did he expect Perry to take a seat beside him. But he came away impressed. “He’s a strong dog,” Mudd says. “From what I can sense, he’s the strongest candidate.”
Perry, however, did not take the warm reception for granted. He did his best, over and over, to assure Iowans that he would compete hard for their vote. As he made his way around the room, Perry ran into Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s senior senator. “Great to be in your state, sir,” he said. “God bless you, welcome,” Grassley said. “Come several times,” he advised. Perry told him, “I’ll be here often.” He then pulled Grassley close for a private conversation, gripping the senator’s hand. After seeing Perry hit the trail in his state for the first time, Grassley told me that Romney would make a “mistake” if he “doesn’t compete very heavily in [Iowa] in the next three months.”
One longtime Perry ally, Austin lobbyist Dan Shelley, credits the smooth debut to Perry’s recent statewide campaigns, where last year he dispatched two big-name challengers, first in the gubernatorial primary and then in the general election. “In the primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was a tough candidate,” Shelley says. “But he beat her. Then he beat Democrat Bill White, another tough candidate and Houston’s mayor.” Those two contests, he says, after nearly a decade in office, forced Perry to sharpen his pitch.
Of course, the brewing rivalry between Perry and Bachmann is due to their similarities. Perry, like Bachmann, is a tea-party favorite with strong connections to the evangelical-Christian community. They also both enjoy tossing barbs at the president and tell voters that they, more than others, can connect the conservative movement’s various groups to defeat Obama. “Are we going to take the reins of our futures over the next 15 months?” Perry asked the audience, who hollered their approval. “We may have issues that separate us, but bringing those diverse roots together and making sure we have a candidate that can beat Barack Obama next November is the most important thing.”
Iowa Republicans appreciate that message. And though the three-term governor was late to enter, party leaders say Perry has more than enough time to catch up to Bachmann. “I think he has a good chance,” says Mac McDonald, the Black Hawk County GOP chairman. “He’s Mitt Romney’s spoiler. Mitt Romney has kind of snubbed Iowa and a lot of people are going to be looking to send him a message about that.” Romney, he says, made a mistake by focusing on early primary states, therefore enabling Perry to have room to grow in Iowa. “If Mitt were here, I think it would have been too late for Perry. But without Romney even getting in, I think Perry has a real shot.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.