BOONE, Iowa -- Rick Perry wasn't supposed to be the underdog.
When he announced his presidential campaign back in August, the Texas governor looked like the strongest challenger to Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination. The longtime governor of a large state with an impressive record of job creation, Perry had establishment connections, credibility with the Tea Party and social conservatives, and a fundraising network that no one but Romney could match.
Then came the debates. Perry's poor performance in debate after debate - culminating in his infamous "oops" movement - helped move him from the top of national polls to the single digits. It also left the field without a consensus conservative candidate.
Which goes a long way to explaining why Perry is making such a hard push for social conservatives here in Iowa, where he hopes a stronger-then-expected finish will rejuvenate his campaign. He's not alone: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and (to a lesser extent) Newt Gingrich have made much the same calculation, tailoring their campaigns to the evangelical and born-again Iowa Republicans who drove former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to a victory here in 2008.
Perry's strategy has been to combine aggressive retail politicking with a barrage of advertising that has trafficked in culture-war rhetoric, including attacks on gays and charges that President Obama has launched a "war on religion." In his stump speech, Perry calls himself an "authentic conservative" - and asks voters why they would "settle" for anything less.
Before Perry spoke here to a crowd of about 150 people here Saturday - many of them on the older side - George Ann Cleaveland said she is trying to decide between Bachmann, Perry and Santorum. "I am for Christian rights - I would like a Godly president in there," she said.
Jeremy Davenport, who said he was leaning toward Perry, cited the governor's strong religious convictions.
"He's a man of faith," said Davenport. "That's who I want leading our country."
Mike Heslop said he was backing Perry because he was a straight shooter.
"He's a no-nonsense person," said Heslop. "He's got ideals that follow my ideals. And if I was doing it, I'd be doing the same thing he's doing."
Many of those who had come to see Perry speak, however, said they were undecided - or likely to caucus for someone else.
"I like Rick Perry a lot, I just worry about his electability when he gets into the debates with Obama - that bothers me," said Teresa Garman, a former member of the Iowa House who said she is planning to back Gingrich. "I like the fact that he has run a state - a big one - and done a good job with it, so I don't know."
With Bachmann and Gingrich both fading in the polls, Perry is focusing his attacks on Santorum, who polls this week showed surging to third place, behind Romney and Ron Paul. Perry has been attacking Santorum for his earmarking while in the Senate, as well as for voting to raise the debt ceiling and being "another Washington insider."
That argument resonated with Rita Davenport.
"Bachmann and Santorum are insiders because they're already in the United States Congress - really they need somebody to go in there and change it up," she said. "I think the people that are in their now have lots of opportunities to get things straightened out."
Davenport lauded Perry's integrity and his "understanding of what it's like to be a normal person - wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth."
"He just seems like a regular guy," she said. "He kind of reminds me of (the younger) George Bush sometimes, has the mannerisms and stuff."
As a public speaker, Perry leaves something to be desired - he tends to look down often to his notes, and often sounds like he's reciting memorized words as opposed to discussing issues he knows well. He is most likeable in his offhand digressions, like when he calls it "awesome" that a woman jumped out of her seat to ask him a question.
Perry says that if he is elected, he will work to "make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in your life as possible" - a line that garnered murmurs of approval here. Perhaps his biggest applause line is his vow to make Congress part time and force lawmakers to get jobs at home in their districts - a situation he promises would help get the country back on track.
Asked if Perry would drop out of the race if he fared badly in Iowa, Perry communications director Ray Sullivan responded, "we've steadfastly avoided that parlor game." But a finish behind Santorum would be a significant blow, one the Perry campaign is desperate to avoid.
Nearly 50 staffers and volunteers have come to Iowa from Perry's Austin campaign headquarters, where they are camped out in a war room on the second floor of a West Des Moines hotel. They join about two dozen Iowa staffers as well as what the campaign says are "several hundred volunteers" from around the country.
After the January 3 caucuses, the fight to be the consensus conservative candidate and primary alternative to Romney will shift to South Carolina. In between will be the January 10 primary in New Hampshire, a state less friendly to candidates furthest right on the spectrum.
"I think the conventional wisdom, which is probably accurate, is that obviously Mitt Romney has a strong lead by all accounts in New Hampshire," said Sullivan. "And the conventional wisdom also is that South Carolina will be the next big battle for the philosophical soul of the party at this stage of the game - whether it will be an establishment moderate or liberal Republican, or an established conservative."
The Perry campaign isn't saying whether it will give it a go in New Hampshire, though the candidate is flying directly to South Carolina on January 4. (Perry does plan to participate in a pair of debates in the Granite State.) Perhaps Perry's biggest asset is his apparent financial advantage over Santorum and Bachmann, both of whom would likely need to drop out if they don't do well on Tuesday in Iowa.
Perry's campaign was stung Saturday by a report that featured campaign officials taking shots at each other for botching the campaign, something Sullivan dismissed as "childish anonymous sniping."
"When campaigns win, everything they do is right, and when they don't win, everything they do is wrong," he said. Still, there's no denying that if Perry can't turn things around, his presidential run will be remembered as a major disappointment.
Perry was asked on Friday if a poor showing in the caucuses will cause him to reconsider his plans to press on past January 3.
"That's God's will," he replied. "There might be an outcome that he decides that I wouldn't go on."Full CBS News coverage: Rick Perry