Texas Gov. Rick Perry gets off his campaign bus in Council Bluffs, Iowa,… (Jeff Haynes, Reuters )
Reporting from Harlan, Iowa — Rick Perry, trying to claw his way back into presidential contention, stepped off his big, blue bus and walked around the picturesque town square here to greet voters Wednesday. It was the first day of a barnstorming tour around the state that was supposed to remind voters why they liked him so much before his campaign began spiraling earthward.
And much like his candidacy to date, sometimes things went smoothly, and sometimes they did not.
Rain and gray skies kept most voters off the streets of this west Iowa town, so Perry dipped into local businesses — a real estate title firm, a coffeehouse, a barbershop.
"It's just a little shower," the Texas governor said before heading into a molding factory.
At the barbershop, Leo Goeser offered to give Perry a trim. Goeser has been cutting hair for more than half a century.
"I got one yesterday," the Texas governor said, before twirling in front of the television cameras. "How does it look?"
Dan Buman, sitting in a stuffed armchair waiting for a haircut, asked Perry when his wife, Anita, would be in town.
"She'll be here tomorrow," Perry said.
"I don't have time tomorrow," Buman, 82, gruffly replied.
After Perry chatted with the men for a few minutes, he slipped outside to head to the next stop.
Goeser was not impressed.
"He didn't stay long enough," the 78-year-old barber said. "I had a few questions I wanted to ask him."
Perry had a little more luck at the Coffee Plant, where Bill Rollins wanted to discuss faith. Perry told him that fear of God was the first step to wisdom, and then discussed his marriage.
"I didn't make a vow just to my wife. I also made a vow to God," Perry said. "I'm afraid of my wife. I'm not afraid of my wife as much as I'm afraid of God."
(Perry's line has become a standard one, and a way of differentiating himself from Iowa front-runner Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker now married to his third wife.)
Rollins, a 59-year-old school bus driver, came away impressed but said he was still deciding whom to support at the caucuses. "I'm a Christian; I just wanted to look him in the eyes and see if he's sincere," he said. "I'm interested in meeting another man who has no problems professing Jesus Christ."
Perry took no questions from the media during the day, but he did offer some advice when a reporter asked how he took his coffee. He said he usually drank aged Sumatra with Splenda and half-and-half.
"Actually, when I'm home, I put honey in it," Perry said. "Honey that's produced in the area you live is a good way to fight off allergies. There's your health tip for the day."
Later Wednesday, Perry spoke to a roomful of voters at Cronk's Cafe in Denison. Several said afterward that they had concerns before the event because of Perry's rocky performances in debates. After seeing him, they said, they felt far more confident in his abilities.
"In person he did much better than anything I've seen in the television coverage," said Elizabeth Escalante, 30, a missionary who works in the Dominican Republic but is home in Denison for the holidays. "He's very focused on values."
Perry did make one mistake, when he urged his supporters to caucus for him on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3 — but then corrected himself, repeatedly saying that the caucuses were Jan. 3.
Perry has been aggressively courting conservative Christians such as Rollins and Escalante, who can be a major source of support in the caucuses.
"This president has not only had a war on our economy; this president has also had a war on our values," Perry said at an afternoon stop in Council Bluffs. The administration had stopped funding for Catholic charities because they wouldn't perform abortions, Perry said, and was trying to outlaw a religious organization that used its discretion to hire and fire people based on their faith.
"That is a war on religion, and Americans are not going to accept this assault on their values anymore," he said.
Perry repeatedly castigated the front-runners for the Republican nomination, Gingrich and Mitt Romney, though only the former Massachusetts governor by name. He argued that politicians and financiers were responsible for the nation's economic crisis.
"Let me tell you, changing one Washington insider for another Washington insider is not going to change a thing. Taking a Wall Streeter and sending them to Washington, D.C., is not going to change a thing," Perry said. "What this country has got to have is an outsider — an outsider who is willing to go in there and have the courage and vision, the stamina and strength, to change Washington, D.C."
In other words, a candidate like him. Perry's bus tour stops briefly Thursday for a debate, with an additional 41 towns and 13 days to go.