Johnston, Iowa — Rick Perry is sitting on a stool, microphone in hand, ready for the first question after his short speech to employees of Pioneer Hi-Bred, a seed company. When the first questioner is selected, the employee leading the conversation says to him, “Tell the governor who you are.”
Then Perry springs into action, practically chomping on the microphone in his haste to add, “And what you do!”
It’s pure Perry, asking so eagerly about a person’s job. At this point in the campaign, his success in Texas as a job-creation dynamo (or, at least, the creator of an environment favorable for jobs) is well known. But watching him campaign, it becomes clear that Perry is a one-man missionary team when it comes to preaching the importance of jobs in a society. “The best social program ever devised was a job,” he says, his ardor matching that of any progressive safety-net aficionado.
In his remarks last Thursday at Pioneer Hi-Bred, a company that proclaims itself the “leading developer and supplier of plant genetics,” Perry lauds the employees’ work. Discussing the necessity of discovering “that thing in life that drives you, that makes your life be consequential,” he says, “I can’t think of many things in this world, when you think about people’s quality of life, when you think about how the world is going to be — I think — approaching 9 billion people by 2050, and the pressure that’s on you to find that food supply, to be able to find those crops that are going to be able to be grown in maybe the Eastern European countries or in Africa or in some of the other parts of the world where food is truly that limiting factor.”
“So what you’re doing today,” he continues, “and the things that Pioneer is about today — 20, 30 years down the road, people will look back and say that there were some folks in Iowa that made a huge difference.”
Watching Perry give his speech and interact with the questioners, I found myself recalling the press reports from New Hampshire the week before, where people were openly wondering if he was drunk or on painkillers. Moderation in body language and tone appears to be an alien concept to the energetic Perry. When he grins, his goofy expression ripples into a sea of crinkles across his weathered face. When he gives a speech, he paces around the room, his eyes roving to find the one person to make eye contact with. Throughout the Q&A, he hops on and off the stool, and he uses the arm not chained to the microphone to gesture forcefully. From his manner, it would be easy to assume that Perry is leading a religious revival; you’d just need to swap a few words — “conversions” for “jobs,” say, and “sins” for “regulations.”
Perry has toned down some of his Texasness for this visit. He still wears cowboy boots, but they are black and relatively discreet. He’s in a gray suit and a blue-and-white checked shirt. The only giveaway is his belt, which has a large silver buckle with the letter “R” prominently inscribed on it.
This employee town hall is just one of the many events Perry will do over the next two months in an attempt to woo Iowans and surge from 7 percent in the most recent Des Moines Register poll to a caucus win. When I speak with him briefly before the Reagan Dinner the following evening in Des Moines, Perry is upbeat about his chances.
“We’re making it right now,” he says of a Hawkeye State comeback. “You’re up, you’re down, you’re back, you’re forward. A snapshot of the polls is nothing to worry about. In 2009, I was down 25 points before I started my third term as governor. So the polls don’t really interest me much.”
“Getting down here and talking to these people is what interests me,” he adds. “They’ll be excited to talk about a 20 percent flat tax; that’s what they’re interested in.”