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.”
If Iowans are interested, they give little indication during Perry’s speech at the Reagan Dinner. Perry, the second presidential candidate to speak that evening (right after Ron Paul), earns polite applause, but nothing sustained or notably enthusiastic. Throughout his speech, he whips out not just his flat-tax postcard prop (to show how simple a flat-tax return would be), but also lines that scream of careful assembly by political consultants and focus groups. He jokes about how he’s on “Operation Occupy the White House,” and he says, “The president talks about winning the future. But you can’t win the future by selling off the future.” He remarks, “Some want to reform Washington with a pair of tweezers. I’m going to bring the wrecking ball.” It’s a tough crowd — no one except Newt Gingrich generates much of a response — but for Perry, whose chances hang on breaking through to people, the lackluster reaction doesn’t bode well. He is not a strong debater, and so it’s crucial for him to connect via retail politics.
What’s holding Perry back in Iowa? It may be his energy policies. “He’s got more influence on oil companies than he does ethanol companies, and the success of the ethanol industry is very important here in Iowa, because it uses a big chunk of corn, and that has helped Iowa farmers,” comments Richard Johnson, a former Tim Pawlenty supporter who was the Iowa state auditor for 24 years. “You have a lot of Iowa farmers who are looking forward to, not government support of ethanol, but fairness of government among different industries. They don’t think the oil industry should have a lot of a federal support when you cut the support from other industries.”
Grant Menke, a volunteer for Iowans Fueled with Pride, echoes that worry. “As an ethanol supporter, I have some concerns about Perry’s energy plan,” Menke says. “His energy plan lays out, by my count, 18 specific proposals that help oil and gas, but nothing that helps renewable fuels.”
While Johnson perceives energy as being an issue that could seriously hurt Perry in Iowa, he sees Perry’s controversial views on immigration as less likely to influence voters. “An awful lot of people in Iowa, they just aren’t close to the immigration issues,” he says.
Before the dinner, Perry poses for photos and chats with attendees. Between his handlers, the media, and the respectable number of Iowans trying to get a chance to speak to him, it’s another fun moment for personal interaction on the campaign trail. Rory Tegtmeier, an Iowan who talked to Perry about his time in the military, says he finds the Texas governor “very impressive,” but considers himself still undecided, with Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Perry being his top three choices. Brett Barker, a pharmacist who asked Perry to sign his copy of Fed Up! (“Freedom,” Perry wrote, before signing his name), tells me that he supported Mike Huckabee last election cycle, and that Perry and Huckabee have “got pretty similar records, pretty similar stands on the issues”; however, Barker also remains undecided. Cecil Wright, a retired Iowan who voted for Romney in 2008 and for Pawlenty in this year’s straw poll, said he was “leaning toward Perry” for his caucus vote. Why Perry over Romney this time? “I think Perry understands the ordinary people better than Romney does,” Wright remarks.
Bob Haus, Perry’s Iowa campaign chairman, says that there is no plan at this point for an exact number of days Perry will spend in Iowa before the January 3 caucuses, but that he is making a “significant commitment” to visiting the state. “He’s going to continue to talk to people,” Haus says, “and talk about his message and his solutions and introduce himself to as many Iowa voters as possible.”
“I think, when it’s all said and done,” Haus adds, “his conservative record, his shared values with the state of Iowa, and his plan for the future are really going to carry the day.”
Can Perry pull it off? Out of curiosity, I visit his Iowa headquarters around noon on Saturday. Three people are there, including the office manager and her husband, who leads the volunteers. The main room has six to eight phone stations, but no volunteers are using them. The office manager tells me that normally there are several volunteers there; perhaps there are. But looking around the headquarters — devoid of supporters, crammed with top-quality Perry campaign signs — confirms once again a sense of déjà vu I can’t shake, a sense that I’m witnessing Tim Pawlenty’s campaign all over again. There are the markers of a first-tier candidacy — the top-quality staffers and paraphernalia — but a matching level of grassroots enthusiasm just isn’t visible.
Perry is not Pawlenty. Among other differences, he has the genuine passion (Fed Up!, anyone?) that the base supposedly wanted Pawlenty to be able to exhibit, and he has raised over three times as much money as Pawlenty did. But if he can’t find a way to gain traction in Iowa soon, he’ll face the same end that Pawlenty did.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.