Texas Gov. Rick Perry, seeking political redemption in Iowa, spent his weekend waiting almost two hours in a school cafeteria to speak to Republican activists, attending local church services and eating barbecue with fellow veterans.
The former U.S. Air Force pilot’s two-day visit was his fourth trip to the state since the 2012 election, in what even he describes as a disastrous first try at the White House.
“I know first impressions matter, but second impressions do as well,” Perry, 64, said Sunday in an interview in Clear Lake, Iowa. “This country has been about second chances a lot more than it has been about first impressions.”
The state that will cast the first votes in the 2016 presidential-nomination race is seeing a flurry of activity from potential Republican candidates, a contrast with Democrats who are frozen awaiting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s decision about whether to run.
The early visits reflect that the Republican primary is one of the most wide-open in the past half century. Unlike prior contests, Republicans don’t yet have a clear frontrunner, such as an incumbent vice president or someone who previously came close to winning the party’s backing.
Perry’s last election chances were dashed during a November 2011 debate in suburban Detroit, when he couldn’t remember the name of the third government agency he had pledged to eliminate as president. He named two, the Commerce and Education departments, and then acknowledged he couldn’t remember the third. “I can’t. Sorry. Oops,” he said.
He came in fifth in the Iowa Republican caucuses, sixth in the New Hampshire primary, and was soon packing for home.
Perry’s 2016 comeback tour follows a three-media-market visit last week in Iowa by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is also considering a run in the Republican primary. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, taking the most overt steps in preparation for a candidacy by hiring two Iowa strategists, is scheduled to spend almost a week in the state in August.
Paul’s visit is timed with the start of the Iowa State Fair, an event that almost always draws prospective presidential candidates. That same week, Perry, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania are to attend an event sponsored by the Family Leader, an Iowa-based coalition that opposes abortion rights and gay marriage.
“If you get here early and you get here often, you build that network,” said Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican popular with limited-government tea party activists.
All the prospective presidential candidates also are expected to return to Iowa through November’s election to campaign with the Republican candidate in a Senate race that polls show is close. A July 7-13 NBC News/Marist poll found that Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley are locked in a dead heat, with both drawing 43 percent support of registered voters in the Senate race.
If the Texan spends lots of time in the state, he would have a good shot with caucus voters, Iowa’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said in an interview.
“I think they will give him another look,” said Branstad, who hasn’t endorsed anyone. “He looks better, he’s got new glasses and he’s got a great economic-development record.”
Perry, who has spent the last 18 months brushing up on national and international policy matters, was animated and accessible during his Iowa swing.
“I may or may not announce a candidacy for president of the United States, but regardless of that, I will prepare myself in all the different ways, both in international policy, in international economic policy and domestic, both economic and otherwise,” he said in the interview. “I’m a better person for that, whatever life has for me after the 20th of January, 2015, when I’m no longer the governor of Texas.”
Perry and Paul were the first potential 2016 candidates to directly engage each other. The fight was started by an opinion piece Perry wrote for the Washington Post where he warned of a growing “isolationism” in the U.S. and singled out Paul as “curiously blind” to growing threats in Iraq.
“I hope I was respectful, which I think I was,” Perry said in the interview. “I greatly respect Senator Paul. I just happen to not agree with him on his, what I consider to be, isolationist type of policies.”
Perry said he understands that Americans have grown tired of international conflicts. “With that said, America is, and I think should be, engaged with trying to make the world safer,” he said.
Perry’s audiences responded most enthusiastically when he talked about the need for immigration controls and when he blamed President Barack Obama for being caught off guard by the flow of undocumented children in Texas and other states.
“If the federal government does not do its constitutional duty to secure the southern border of the United States, the state of Texas will do it,” he said to applause from an audience of about 100 gathered inside a hangar at the Mason City airport.
Perry’s early start for a possible 2016 bid – and the low expectations for his success – contrasts with his late entry in the 2012 Republican primary. After his August 2011 announcement, Perry surged ahead of eventual nominee Mitt Romney in polls.
After his humiliating collapse just five months later, doubts linger about his candidacy today.
“I don’t think he is a serious candidate,” said Jim Cownie, a prominent Des Moines businessman and Republican. “I don’t think he can get going again. I think he’s perceived as being a little lacking in intelligence and he played into that when he lost his train of thought at the debate.”
Still, a second run by Perry could be boosted by a Republican tradition of backing those who’d sought the nomination before. Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, John McCain and Romney all won nominations after failed first attempts.
Perry’s past supporters said he shouldn’t be ignored.
“A lot of people just like Governor Perry,” said Matt Whitaker, an unsuccessful 2014 U.S. Senate candidate who was one of the Texas governor’s state chairmen in 2012. “Iowans will give him an opportunity to communicate what he’s running on and his success in Texas.”