A piece this Sunday on Texas Gov. Rick Perry in The Des Moines Register by the paper’s top political reporter, Jennifer Jacobs, caught my eye. Jacobs’s observations about seeing Perry on the stump in Iowa in recent days matched my impressions from a meeting with him last month. Jacobs observed that “a guy who in the past didn’t seem like he could run for a governor’s office much less the Oval Office seemed like a different candidate, Iowans said, after Perry talked about ‘prosperity and hope and freedom,’ as well as a favorite topic of his lately, immigration reform.” Jacobs went on: ” ‘We know how to secure the border,’ said Perry, the governor of Texas, his voice rising from quiet solemnity to a loud command, ‘and if the federal government will not do its duty, then I will suggest to you that the state of Texas will.’ ” Jacobs then noted, “That remark brought the audience of about 200 northwest Iowa Republicans to their feet for an extended standing ovation. And the room was buzzing after the 16-minute speech at the dinner, a fundraiser for nine county Republican parties.”
Jacobs quoted Humboldt County Republican Party Chairman Bud Douglas saying, “He seems to have matured or changed a bit. He seemed to have more fire, a lot more motivation.” State Auditor Mary Mosiman was quoted in the piece as saying, “This was definitely the most energized I’ve seen him,” adding, ” ‘Spot on’ is what I was just saying to a tablemate of mine. He was very energized, very upbeat, very motivated.”
These weren’t always the kinds of reviews Perry drew in Iowa. Jacobs pointed back to a Register story from November 2013 that said Perry delivered “a short, deadpan speech” during which the Texan “looked down at notes almost constantly.”
In mid-June, Perry sat down to speak with a group of us, but only after he circled the conference table talking one-on-one, spending anywhere from 15 seconds to three minutes with each person, including the three interns, asking them about themselves, seeming to effortlessly find some common ground or establish some rapport with each person, working the room with a skill reminiscent of Bill Clinton. We found Perry to be focused, albeit in a folksy way, persuasive, and very effective.
In the Register piece, after noting that in 2012 Perry “got his butt kicked,” Jacobs observed that in his fourth trip to Iowa in eight months, “there are signs Perry has rehabilitated himself to a certain extent since his 2012 presidential bid flopped,” echoing my impression after sitting down with him for an hour. The Texan seemed genuinely humbled by his disastrous 2011-12 bid; he had clearly underestimated the magnitude of the challenge of running for president and the reality that a White House bid is significantly greater in scale than running even in Texas, a state bigger and more populous that many countries.
I am now convinced that what seemed four years ago to be a lame excuse for his troubles—that he had undergone back surgery shortly before entering the presidential contest and was still taking painkillers as he undertook the bid—was more real than perceived. (My wife suffered a herniated disk three months ago, less than two weeks before our only daughter’s wedding; in all our 32 years of marriage, my conversations with her under the influence of Vicodin and Percocet were among the most memorable.) Undergoing the grueling process of running for president and engaging almost immediately in nationally televised debates while recovering from surgery and under the influence of painkillers would be enough of a handicap for anyone.
Since Perry’s 2012 debacle, many observers have tended to write off his chances. But whether one agrees with him or not, he seems to have enough raw talent, combined with the benefit of past experience, that blowing him off might be premature.
Of course, Perry is not the only potential White House candidate getting strong reviews in the Hawkeye State. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enjoyed a “rock-star reaction” in Iowa according to The Register, and with the Iowa State Fair coming up Aug. 7-17, plenty of potential contenders will likely flood the state—repeat visits for most. The reality is that with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looking increasingly unlikely to run, and the chances of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton passing up on the contest rising as well—to perhaps as high as 50-50—this could end up being a campaign with relatively flat candidate fields on each side, neither with a clear front-runner or with tiers of serious candidacies. Maybe it’s too soon to be writing many people off.