Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry visits a coffeehouse in… (Jim Young, Reuters )
Reporting from Des Moines — Struggling to ignite his sputtering presidential campaign, Rick Perry is aggressively courting Iowa's socially conservative voters over the airwaves and, in a 44-city, 14-day bus trip beginning Wednesday, hopes to make the pitch personal.
The tour, full of stops on Main Streets and at the state's ubiquitous Pizza Ranch restaurants, is the kind of politicking that Iowans expect and in which Perry excels. The move follows a sharp shift in Perry's central campaign argument, from one focused on jobs to an effort overtly keyed to evangelical voters.
The most notable example is a controversial TV ad in which the candidate says he would end President Obama's "war on religion."
"There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school," Perry says in the 30-second spot that began airing last week.
Political experts questioned both the wisdom of the ad and the timing of the tour. Because the Texas governor waited until the last three weeks before the Jan. 3 caucuses to hold a slate of town halls and meet-and-greets, many suspect the effort will be futile.
"This kind of activity would have really paid off for him in November. Waiting till the last minute, you have to compete with all these ads, all the candidates visiting, there's all these debates, there's going to be all these media interviews. It becomes really hard to cut through the chatter," said Craig Robinson, founder of the Iowa Republican, a website. "I think it's good to campaign across the state — I wonder if it might be too little too late."
Perry's supporters acknowledge the risk.
"Better late than never," said Matt Whitaker, Perry's Iowa co-chairman. "It is what it is."
Perry launched his presidential bid in August, lofting to the top of the GOP field by feeding the hopes of voters seeking an alternative to the front-runner at the time, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But then Perry sharply curtailed visiting Iowa voters and turned in a string of poor debate performances.
On Tuesday, he blamed his stumbles on his recuperation from back surgery. In July, Perry had an advanced spinal fusion using adult stem cells, but he and his staff consistently denied that the surgery had any effect on his debate showings.
"Frankly I didn't know the impact it was having on me from the standpoint of just being fatigued, and it showed up in the first few debates," Perry said on Sean Hannity's radio show.
He said he had recovered. "I have never felt better, and I think you saw a glimpse of what you can expect out of me as we go forward in that last debate we had in Iowa," he said, referring to Saturday's event at Drake University in Des Moines.
But those poor performances — at a time when many voters were just getting to know Perry — took a toll.
His poll numbers nationally have dropped to single digits, behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
He is not running much better in Iowa, where he is vying with two other candidates making a strong push for the important evangelical vote — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
These voters have yet to coalesce behind a candidate, as they did in 2008 when they delivered a surprise caucus victory to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake, said Perry was trying to replicate that strategy, but he questioned whether it would work.
"His approach now seems to be an obvious pander directly to conservative evangelicals," he said. "I've heard a lot of outrage from other folks regarding that particular ad, from Republicans as well as Democrats."
Doug Gross, a prominent GOP activist who is nonaligned in the race, said Perry should be trying to peel off voters from Gingrich and Romney as the two front-runners trash each other's records, and those are largely not evangelical voters.
"The ad was a mistake," Gross said.
Perry's supporters are counting on the fact that the Texas governor, though wooden and gaffe-prone during debates, can be charming and charismatic when he is one-on-one with voters.
"I think people are taking a second look at him," Whitaker said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that this opportunity to get all over the state and see people will be really positive."
The question is, can he persuade enough of them?