Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry signs a shirt during a campaign… (Chris Carlson, AP )
Reporting from Des Moines — Maybe it makes sense that Rick Perry likes to compare himself to Tim Tebow, the scrambling, come-from-behind pro quarterback of the moment. In his furious, fourth-quarter bid to reclaim the support he once enjoyed as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Perry has heaved a fair share of Hail Mary passes.
A flat tax. A part-time Congress. An ad that praised celebrating Christmas in schools and scorned gays in the military. A sharpened stance against abortion. And this week, Perry barnstormed Iowa with a conservative rock star, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, condemned by the Obama Justice Department for alleged civil rights abuses.
Ever since Perry vaulted to the top of the pack upon entering the race in September — and tumbled almost as quickly in part because of a series of erratic, and sometimes downright comedic, debate performances — he's been groping for a way to get hot again. And more than any other candidate in the field, he's resorted to the kind of gimmick plays that can sometimes turn things around, but can just as easily backfire.
As the Texas governor traversed Iowa this week in a brightly painted bus, there was a sense that some of it was working, that Perry had staunched the bleeding and was slowly edging upward again. Crowds numbered in the hundreds and were enthusiastic. He was blanketing the airwaves here with campaign ads.
There remains no one in the GOP field quite like Perry, a plain-speaking governor from a sprawling, Southwestern state who, when he says he's never been a creature of Washington, is telling it straight. With the debates behind him, he's been able to play to his strengths, his record as an 11-year governor, his anti-government attitude, and his capacity to bond with voters through allusions to faith, farm work and military service.
But there's no doubt he has altered his approach. Gone are the days when he tried to stand toe-to-toe with front-runner Mitt Romney and boast about his job-creation record in Texas. Instead, he's running a campaign that offers large portions of red meat: border control, balanced-budget amendments, states' rights, flat taxes, abortion.
His new approach has given him a shot at finishing near the top Tuesday and perhaps moving on, but he'll need a few breaks to come his way. "I'm going to feel good about our performance regardless of where we come in in Iowa," he told Fox News on Friday. "People are giving us a second look."
A crucial part of Perry's closing strategy has been to mount an appeal to Iowa's key bloc of evangelical voters. His widely viewed ad condemning the notion that gays could serve openly in the armed forces while children couldn't openly celebrate Christmas was a volley in that direction.
Some viewed Perry's surprise declaration this week that he had shifted his stance on abortion — he no longer believes it should be allowed in cases of rape or incest — as a ploy for votes, but aides insisted that Perry's evolution was sincere. "You're seeing a transformation," he told one crowd.
He's also freely aping the language of the tea party movement, of which he was an early adherent. "I am a limited-government conservative," he said again and again, asserting as part of his pitch that Congress be transformed into a body of citizen-legislators who hold everyday jobs outside of Washington. That proposal has garnered him the most applause during his bus tour.
"Let 'em get a real job!" he shouted to a rowdy crowd in Oskaloosa on Wednesday.
The idea won over Doralyn Underberg, 66, of Clive, even though she conceded that Perry probably couldn't pull it off. "I don't think he has the authority," she said, adding that she would nevertheless caucus for him Tuesday.
"He could do it," said Wes Dunbar, 63, of Indianola, who also liked the idea. "It would take six years, but he could do it." Why Perry? "He's the only conservative with experience in the public sector," Dunbar replied.
Perry has pledged other seemingly Herculean feats. He vowed to balance the budget by 2020, in part by capping federal spending at 18% of gross domestic product — a cap so low that most economists have dismissed it as impossible. He told one attendee at an event in Creston that if he failed to balance the budget by then, he'd slash his own executive salary — never mind that 2020 would be the final year of a second Perry term.
At the same time, he touted his plan to instill a 20% flat income tax that would be so simple, it would "get rid of the IRS in the future."
Supporter Bill Thomas, 63, of Indianola was impressed, saying Perry had overcome his debate foibles. "Yeah, he's getting better," Thomas said. "It's not so much what they say; it's what they've done."
An undecided voter, Cole Converse, 21, was impressed that Perry had secured the endorsement of Arpaio, the tough-talking sheriff from Arizona brought on to buttress Perry's position on illegal immigration. "That was big," Converse said.
Still, at times there were echoes of the old stumbles. At a stop in Pella, Perry seemed to be offering unusually harsh criticism of NATO until it became clear to the crowd — and to Perry — that he was really talking about the United Nations. "Excuse me," he twanged.
Moments later, he found more comfortable ground, when asked what he would do if he failed to attain the GOP nomination.
"That's not my plan," Perry said. "Know this: Regardless of what the Lord has planned for me, I'm going to be standing up for my values, standing up for my faith."