Rick Perry, a former frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination whose support has crumbled in recent weeks, is ramping up his campaign in Iowa, launching new ads, and spending more time in a state that Republicans say could make or break his bid for the White House.
With sexual harassment accusations rocking Herman Cain’s campaign, influential Iowa Republicans say Perry, the Texas governor, has a small but crucial opportunity to revive his flagging candidacy, which has been harmed by lackluster debate performances and criticism of his support for in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants.
The most recent Iowa Poll, published Sunday, showed Perry and Newt Gingrich tied for fifth in Iowa, with 7 percent each. Cain led with 23 percent, followed by Mitt Romney with 22 percent. Ron Paul was third with 12 percent, and Michele Bachman was fourth, with 8 percent.
“It’s difficult, but not over because I think people are still looking for an alternative to Romney,’’ said Douglas E. Gross, the 2002 Republican nominee for governor of Iowa, who chaired Romney’s campaign in the state in 2008 but is unaligned in this race.
Noting that Perry has nine aides on his Iowa payroll, Gross said: “He’s got as big a paid staff as anyone in the state, and if he doesn’t do relatively well in Iowa, he will have to pack it in.’’
With less than two months until the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, Perry is hoping to leverage his $15 million war chest, sizable operation, and knack for retail campaigning into more grassroots support.
This week he launched radio and television ads highlighting his conservative credentials and taking subtle digs at Romney. He is also courting Christian conservatives, dispatching staff to county Republican meetings, and making more frequent visits to diners and town halls. On Oct. 22, he went pheasant hunting with Steve King, an Iowa congressman.
“He’s working hard at it,’’ said Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Christian conservative who was Mike Huckabee’s Iowa chairman in 2008 and was scheduled to meet with Perry this week.
“His team here in Iowa is working hard, and they understand the dynamics as well as anybody else does,’’ said Vander Plaats, who is unaligned in this race. “But he’s got 60-some-odd days to put things together. The benefit for him and for other candidates is there is an opening for him. I really believe that this race is up for grabs.’’
Perry supporters believe he has several natural advantages in Iowa. Like many caucus-goers, the governor is an avid hunter from a small farming community, and a man with a military background who wears his Christian faith on his sleeve. He also has a record of slashing spending and creating jobs.
“We’ve got a good car, it’s got a lot of gas and a good pit crew, and probably one of the most aggressive drivers in the business,’’ said Bob Haus, Perry’s Iowa campaign chairman. “We’re going to start to pull up and advance.’’
Haus, however, said Perry does not need to win Iowa. The governor is also banking on a strong showing in South Carolina and, to a lesser extent, New Hampshire.
“I would caution anybody saying you’ve got to do X, Y, or Z in any state, given the fluidity of this race,’’ Haus said. “I would say we can and will do well here. As to a place on the leader board, I’m reluctant to say where we should be on that. Of all the campaigns, it’s really Perry and Romney that have built out a more national operation.’’
When he first entered the race in August, Perry was seen as a candidate who could unite Tea Party activists and social and fiscal conservatives.
But the governor’s luster was tarnished when his rivals attacked the laws he signed that made Texas the first state to grant in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrants and the first to require that sixth-grade girls be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus.
“A lot of people said, ‘Ooh. That’s not who I thought he was,’ ’’ said Richard Schwarm, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP. “That hurt, and the debate appearances hurt.’’
Since then, Perry has struggled to regain his footing.
“The Christian right are leaning toward Michele, and the establishment Republicans are leaning more toward Mitt, and then your really hard-core constitutional conservatives are leaning toward Ron Paul,’’ said Drew Ivers, a member of the Iowa GOP central committee, who supports Paul.
“It’s leaving him in a bit of no-man’s land,’’ Ivers said. “He does not have a niche to draw on.’’
In his new ad, Perry tries to reintroduce himself to Iowans while knocking Romney.
“If you’re looking for a slick politician or a guy with great teleprompter skills, we already have that, and he’s destroying our economy,’’ Perry says in the ad, without naming Romney directly. “I’m a doer, not a talker.’’
A pro-Perry “Super PAC’’ this week launched its own ads emphasizing Perry’s roots as the son of a tenant farmer and his record in Texas.
But Republicans say the ads will only go so far. They point out that Perry has made nine appearances in Iowa since Aug. 1, while Paul has made 10, Gingrich 13, and Bachmann and Rick Santorum more than 20 each.
“He’s got to spend more time here,’’ said Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Governor Terry Branstad. “He’s got to make the sale in person, because he himself readily admits: ‘I’m not polished. I don’t do well in debates.’ So get in front of Iowans.’’
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.