10/08/2011 07:48 pm ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

Rick Perry Faces Tough Questions From Cautious Iowa Conservatives

SPENCER, Iowa -- It was a good day in the Hawkeye State for Rick Perry, but he'll need a lot more like it to climb his way back to the top slot among GOP presidential candidates.

At the end of his third and last campaign stop Saturday in a state that will be crucial to his fortunes in the Republican presidential primary, the Texas governor took the most provocative question of the day from a voter.

A man in his late 20s stood and pleasantly asked Perry what he thought about being called "the 'I-shot-a-coyote-in-the-face' candidate" by MSNBC show host Joe Scarborough -- though that's not exactly what Scarborough said -- and asked Perry whether he would have "his whole party's support" if he won the nomination.

The governor's wife, Anita Perry, was sitting directly in front of the questioner, and her irritation was evident. She frowned and seemed to be making an effort to calm herself, but her husband took a breath, swelled out his chest and met the question head on.

"I think Americans are looking for a president that will look them right in the eye and tell them the truth. I think they want a president who has the record of job creation. I think they want somebody that's not about rhetoric but that's about record," Perry said.

It was an efficient and well-delivered recitation of the three things Perry needs to do to turn his political fortunes around: introduce himself, highlight contrast with President Obama and distinguish himself from Mitt Romney.

But Perry has been beset recently by an ongoing cascade of gaffes and distractions. The latest: on Friday a Texas minister who introduced Perry at a public meeting in Washington told reporters that Mormonism is a "cult" and that Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and current Republican frontrunner, is not a Christian. The campaign distanced itself from the minister, but then had to acknowledge they gave the green light for him to introduce Perry.

The reaction to Perry from voters here in northwest Iowa -- the most conservative part of a conservative state -- appeared mixed at times, which shows the damage that Perry has suffered over the course of three bad debates in the past month. But if Perry is going to win Iowa, which goes first in the primary process, he will have to win over and energize voters in this part of the state.

To do that, he'll need to spend a lot more time on the ground, as many voters who said they like him thought he still faced an uphill battle.

"I hope he can come back. He's taking a beating right now," said Steve Maher, 49, who said he is supporting Perry after attending the candidate's first event of the day in Sioux City, near the state line with Nebraska.

Anita Bomgaars, a 56-year old teacher, real estate broker, independent film producer and mother of three, came to the second event of the day in Orange City and said, "Mr. Perry's got to gain back a little ground."

Voters asked Perry for more specificity in his proposals on tax reform and on entitlement reform, and got vague reassurances from Perry that he will release them "over the course of the next few days, and certainly weeks and months."

One woman dismissed Perry's talk of what he'd do -- "That's nirvana, [but] you have to work with Democrats," she said -- and asked what his "backup plan" was.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the outspoken congressman who represents this part of the state, appeared prescient in an interview Friday about the challenges that Perry faces in winning over local voters.

"He's got to go iron out some of the kinks on the policies that were brought to light in the debates. Immigration is one of them," King said.

And sure enough, at each stop Saturday, Perry was asked about his support for giving in-state tuition to children of illegal immigrants in Texas. He was ready for the questions, using a new argument that by making it easier for the young people to get an education, it increased the chance they would make more money and become "taxpayers, not tax-wasters."

One woman, Fae Groff-Moritz, a 63-year-old medical records clerk from Orange City, buttonholed Perry to press him about the issue. She walked away satisfied.

"Maybe I misunderstood what he said on TV. He said there was no free rides for illegal immigrants," she said, though she added that she is not ready to make up her mind who she will support.

There were also signs that Perry's focus on a jobs message was having an impact, and he has continued to hone his message on the job creation in Texas.

"There will be a bright line drawn between a president that has lost 2.5 million jobs while he has been at the White House, and we've created a million jobs in the state of Texas. That's what Americans care about," he said.

Kirk Huisenga, a 61-year old property insurance firm owner from Spirit Lake, was impressed.

"It will resonate with people. As a nation we've gone backwards in jobs, versus Texas," Huisenga said.

Huisenga and his wife, Becky, both were intrigued by Perry's assertion that the bulk of job growth in Iowa has not been all in oil and gas. But Becky Huisenga said that she was discomfited by Perry's talk of freedom and reducing the role of the government.

"That's good rhetoric, but in reality does that invite illegal activity and other issues?" she said. "The way he described this freedom was almost frightening."

Perry was able to stay on message all day with the help of a large posse of Texas state troopers and political aides, who kept a cordon around Perry that prevented reporters and voters from crowding the governor too closely. As he ended his last event of the day, five troopers with ear pieces and two political aides swooped in. All of them stood within at least 10 feet of the candidate, who shook hands for a few minutes and then left.

When reporters did get close enough to ask Perry questions, he ignored them. The Huffington Post did not see Perry answer a question from a member of the press corps all day.

Perry shook hands for just a few minutes at his first and third events, and spent some extended time talking to voters after the second event. Part of the reason Perry stayed longer seemed to be that his security contingent was confused about which direction to take him out of the room and herded him from one end of a lobby to the other before going back the direction they had first come from and exiting through a back door.

Some attendees said that Perry will need to loosen up and spend more time meeting with voters.

"I wish he would have stayed longer," said Tom Mitchell, a 61-year old retiree in Sioux City. "As soon as he was done talking his handlers came in."