DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Even before Rick Perry spoke about getting "off the mat" Monday night to roughly 300 Republicans here on the eastern border of Iowa, he was reminded that Mitt Romney is running away from him.
The man who emceed the dinner and spoke a few minutes before Perry, Brian Kennedy, is the Scott County finance chairman -- but he is also chairman of Romney's state steering committee. Kennedy exhorted the crowd to get ready for a general election showdown with President Obama, noting that the president has been to the county twice this year.
"Our opponents know that this is the battle ground," Kennedy said, calling Scott County "the swing county of the swing state."
The sight of a key Romney leader focusing on Obama as Perry looked on was a telling illustration of where things stand in the state that will go first in the Republican primary process. As the anti-Romney voters remain split among six Republicans, the former Massachusetts governor appears to be better positioned every day to finish in the top tier or even win the Hawkeye State on Jan. 3.
The Romney campaign is still cautious, fearing that Iowa conservatives could unite behind someone else -- perhaps former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga) -- but is beginning to compete more aggressively here. Romney will come back for a fourth time this year on Nov. 23 to campaign.
As Perry waited to speak, it got worse before he could even take the microphone. An Iowan running for Congress named Mike Batcher, who spent most of his talk rambling about his five kids and how he doesn't give prepared remarks, mocked Perry's inability during a debate last week to remember the third federal agency he wants to eliminate.
"I can go on and on about what's wrong with Washington. You already know what's wrong with Washington," Batcher said. "I mean there's several departments we want to get rid of: EPA, Education, ummm." He paused and then said with a laugh: "Energy." The crowd burst into laughter and applause, and Perry continued to be a good sport about his now candidacy-defining gaffe, rising and high-fiving Batcher with a wide grin.
In his speech, Perry tried to salvage the moment and begin winning voters back by casting himself as a fighter who won't easily be knocked out.
"The test of any American is not whether or not we get knocked down. We're all going to do that. Every one of us has. But it's whether we get up," Perry said. "Throughout the years Americans have been defined by men and women who got off the mat and fought for their values."
He promised to unveil "very dramatic reforms" in a speech Tuesday morning that he said will "uproot all three branches of government and overhaul Washington."
And the Texas governor continued to make the case that he is best suited to carry conservative grievances to a capitol that he believes is out of control and drunk on taxpayer money.
"The solution is not to nominate someone who is going to nibble around the edges," Perry said. "Washington doesn't need a new coat of paint. It needs a complete overhaul."
But Perry's most recent stumbles were on the forefront of everyone's minds. One Republican party insider said many voters have "scratched him off the list" and that it is difficult, "nearly impossible," to get back on.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll out Monday showed that Perry fell from 8 percent to 4 percent after the debate gaffe, while Romney went from 27 percent to 32 percent. Former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain and Gingrich were also still in the running, at 27 and 22 percent respectively.
Dinner attendees here indicated that their attitudes tracked fairly closely with the poll results. Their comments reflected that Perry faces a very difficult challenge going forward to convince voters that he is a credible leader.
"He was a flash in the pan before this happened. His numbers were already heading south," said Mike Steffenson, 73, who owns a manufacturing company in Davenport.
Steffenson and his wife caucused for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008, but he said they were "not going to be right wing ideologues" this time.
"I think we'll gravitate toward someone who we see as electable," he said. When he was asked if he saw Romney as the most electable candidate, Steffenson responded: "Doesn't everyone?"
Many in the audience gave Perry credit for his vigorous response to his debate meltdown, but it was clear that despite their appreciation for his gracious response to his failure, Perry was largely discredited in their minds.
"Sometimes I can't find a word. I don't think it's that horrible. He handled it well. He addressed it and it can happen to anybody," said Joanne Mercer, who is a retired co-owner of a 275-employee machine shop.
But Mercer said she was for Romney.
"I think he's handsome. I think we need a business person in there," she said.
Eunice Olson, 60, who transcribes doctor's notes at a local hospital, echoed Mercer's sentiment. She applauded Perry's reaction to his debate performance -- "He has a sense of humor about himself that is probably helpful," she said -- but added that she is leaning toward Romney.
"He seems more presidential. He hasn't made any major mistakes," she said, while also citing Romney's business experience.
Mercer's husband, Hu Dunn, 74, said he has voted in past general elections but has never caucused in the primary. He said he was "flexible" as to whom he supported.
"I like Romney. I like Newt. I like Perry," Dunn said.
But a moment later, he said, "You know who the ticket's going to be? Romney and [Rep. Michele] Bachmann."
That commenced a vigorous discussion between him, his wife, and another man about who Romney would choose for his running mate.
Background on Rick Perry: