COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — A swaggering Rick Perry parachuted into Iowa last summer at the top of the GOP presidential field with a job-creation message, an off-the-cuff speaking style and a fledgling campaign organization. He quickly nosedived.
Lately, a more humble Texas governor has been trying to claw his way back into contention with a much different approach.
He has tailored his pitch to tea party activists and religious conservatives, replacing a bus emblazoned with "Get America Working Again" with one carrying the slogan "Faith, Jobs, Freedom." He is more disciplined and less free-wheeling when he talks with voters than he was when he suggested, on his first visit here, that the Federal Reserve chairman may be committing treason. And he's beefed up his campaign staff with presidential veterans and targeted his travel to key conservative regions.
"I ask you to do more than just attend this rally and I ask you to do more than just sign up for my campaign at tables in the back of this room. I ask you to brave the weather on Jan. 3," Perry pleaded during a recent stop here – his second to this conservative, western Iowa town in as many weeks. In a new TV ad, he says: "As we've traveled across the state, I've been humbled by your dedication" and asks voters for help.
Perry has repeated that plea over the past few weeks in breakfast diners, town squares and coffee shops, planting himself in parts of Iowa filled with religious voters in hopes that a retooled campaign message that sells him as the only candidate who is a Christian conservative and a Washington outsider will resonate with a chunk of the electorate that's still undecided or willing to change their minds before the caucuses Tuesday night.
"If we replace a Democratic insider with a Republican insider, do you think we're really going to change Washington, D.C.? No way," Perry says everywhere he goes. "I am the anti-establishment outsider who goes to Washington with a sense of purpose. And that purpose is to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can make it."
Another staple: "I defended traditional marriage and protected the unborn children, including signing a budget that defunded Planned Parenthood and they closed down 12 of their abortion clinics in the state of Texas." His pitch is peppered with anti-Washington rhetoric and references to his faith and he always quotes the Bible at the end.
Perry's even gone so far as to switch his position on abortion. He told a pastor one day that he had undergone a "transformation" and now opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest. A day later he clarified his stance, saying he would allow the legal procedure only if the pregnancy threatened the woman's life.
It's unclear whether Perry's unabashed pitch to conservatives and tea party backers will help him rise high enough in the coming days to finish in the top three in the Iowa caucuses, typically the threshold candidates must meet to prove they are viable. His challenge is steep, given that he's fighting for the same slice of the Iowa electorate as several rivals, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum among them.
But unlike them, he has money.
The roughly $5 million Perry has spent on advertising since late October – combined with heavy spending from a super PAC that supports his candidacy — may be paying dividends. He seems to be running slightly stronger in public and private polls than he has in months. Perry's final push got the help of an additional $865,000 in television advertising from Make Us Great Again, a pro-Perry political action committee that has spent more than $1 million in Iowa.
And he's drawing large, enthusiastic crowds on a bus tour with his retooled campaign message.
To wrap up Thursday, he packed every seat in a community center in Marshalltown and curious caucus-goers lined the walls and stood in the back of the room. After he jogged in, he immediately dived into the crowd, reaching out with both arms to shake hands and squeeze shoulders.
Some liked what they heard but still weren't ready to sign on.
"I want a Christian in the White House who isn't ashamed of it. We don't have that in the White House with Obama," said Kay Miles, a Hopkinton retiree who caucused for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee four years ago. She met with Perry last week in Manchester and came away impressed but hadn't decided which candidate to support.
Sharon Knudson, a factory worker from DeWitt who makes car air fresheners, likes Perry, too, but wasn't ready to sign up.
Knudson said she wants someone who won't "mess with our values" the way she says Washington elites have.
"We have a great country, but they want to tinker with things here and there and before you know it, we will have drifted so far from our values that we won't recognize our country," Knudson said. "Rick Perry won't put up with that."
Perry's pitch to make Congress a part-time branch of government also may be resonating.
"Congress has gotten power hungry and they've forgotten who sent them there in the first place," said Tammy Hardersen, a retired ad sales manager from Waukee who saw Perry speak in Urbandale. "There aren't a lot of folks looking out for folks like me." But, she thought, perhaps Perry will.
It's safe to say that Perry – a dogged campaigner who has never lost an election in Texas – likely didn't anticipate being far behind his rivals when he was welcome to the race in August with great fanfare. He was greeted as the battle-tested figure who might quiet conservatives' frustrations with the other contenders. He instantly rocketed to the top of polls before withering under close scrutiny. He stumbled during debates, appeared erratic and frightened donors.
Eventually, he pressed reset.
Perry hired veterans from George W. Bush's presidential campaign. He started watching what he said. He shed the "jobs governor" pitch and shifted his strategy to focus on courting tea party and religious voters who hold great sway in Iowa's contest.
The next five days will determine whether the shift worked.