Rick Perry has a reputation as a campaigner in Texas: He's dangerous, but even more dangerous when he's down. The next three weeks in Iowa will present him with the ultimate underdog challenge as he undertakes a last-ditch, massive effort to save his presidential bid.
Wednesday marks the beginning of a 14-day, 42-city bus tour that will see the Texas governor traverse the Hawkeye State, logging more than 1,000 miles as he strives to regain his standing among the top tier of candidates for the GOP nomination.
Campaign officials have demurred from talking about a necessary finish in the Iowa caucus that Perry's campaign would need to achieve to declare the state a success. The campaign is projecting more confidence after Saturday's debate than they have in recent weeks, following a series of disastrous debate performances that led Perry to plummet in the polls. Most now show him in fourth place in the state behind Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul.
Perry is one of the few candidates with enough financial strength to survive a fourth-place finish in Iowa, tread water through New Hampshire and then try to make a strong showing in South Carolina. That state, with its high populations of evangelical voters and veterans like Perry himself, is the state that best fits his candidacy - though at the moment, he remains a distant third there to Gingrich and Romney.
His Iowa tour will begin in Council Bluffs, on the western edge of the state, and run in a semicircle across the northern half of Iowa heading east. After a leisurely break for Christmas - Perry has no events planned from the afternoon of the 22nd until the morning of the 27th - the tour will resume with a swing through the southern part of the state and snake back around to the center. Most days follow a pattern: two to four "meet-and-greets," often at local restaurants or coffee shops, followed by a town hall meeting in the afternoon.
As he travels through the state, Perry will seek to build a coalition of evangelical and tea party voters, often attempting to pick off supporters from his rivals. He's shown as much in the ads he's run in the state targeting those specific groups. His fight for the Christian right, a key voting block during the Iowa caucuses, will put him in competition against Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Perry's outreach to those voters has had all the subtlety of the sledgehammer he has pledged to bring with him to Washington if elected. He's already run two ads in Iowa that highlight his Christian faith, including one that made waves for asserting it was wrong that "gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."
For a campaign that had been relatively secular since Perry held a massive prayer rally in Houston just before announcing his candidacy, the ads served as a dog whistle to a population of so-called "values voters."
Two powerful conservative groups in the state have not coalesced behind a candidate. The Family Leader, a Christian activist group, has yet to endorse, and the conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition is not expected to.
"An endorsement may help somewhat, but it's not Moses waving his staff and parting the Red Sea," said Drake University politics professor Dennis Goldford.
That's why Perry will also be on the hunt for tea party voters, those that are hungry for the sort of red-meat, anti-Washington rhetoric Perry has begun to serve up on the campaign trail. "The fact of the matter is, Governor Perry has strong roots in social, fiscal and tea party conservative communities," said Ray Sullivan, Perry's communications director. "We've seen that in Texas and he's building on that nationally. We're not ceding any ground, but he is really the only non-congressional, non-establishment Republican left in the race."
The tea party has also been sweet on former Gingrich for quite some time. He and Perry have a good relationship - the former House speaker wrote the forward to Perry's book, Fed Up! - but to siphon away those voters, Perry will have to go on the attack. And so far, he's proved willing.
"Let's quit being politically correct here and call it what it is," Perry told radio host Sean Hannity in an interview on Tuesday. "You're trying to influence people, you're getting paid for it. Americans know that's lobbying." It was a not-so-subtle reference to the reported $1.8 million in fees Gingrich received to advise mortgage giant Freddie Mac as well as millions made from advising a host of other clients. Gingrich likes to call his services that of a historian; Perry would like voters to see them as little more than lobbying.
An ad that began running Tuesday night, just before the bus tour was due to start, had a similar message: "Washington is the capital of political correctness, where double speak reigns and the truth is frowned upon. You can't say that congressmen becoming lobbyists is a form of legal corruption," Perry said in the ad, signing off by calling himself an outsider who will "overhaul Washington and tell you the truth."
"We believe - and the national polls, public polls bear this out - that Iowa Republicans are still making up their minds, they're still prone to changing candidates and we believe that Governor Perry has the momentum in the organization and the outsider fiscal and social conservative message to really leap ahead in Iowa," Sullivan said.
These efforts will not be without obstacles in the final three-week sprint of the caucuses. Mired in the single digits of polls for most of November, Perry's numbers have only begun to creep up toward the teens and those gains seem fragile, bolstered only by relatively strong performances in recent debates.
And yes, Perry is still working to overcome a host of embarrassing gaffes in his early debates that have cast doubt in voters' minds.
"He helped create the narrative that Perry is not ready [to be a] primetime player, that he's not capable of standing on a stage and really going toe to toe with the president," said Goldford, the Drake University professor.
The bus tour may be the best remedy for the uncertainty. "It's kind of a question mark on a lot of people's minds," said University of Iowa political scientist Timothy Hagle. "Usually to see him in person is the way to alleviate those people's concerns."
But Perry, the candidate who has never lost an election, has one more trick up his sleeve: the so-called Strike Force.
Starting in late December, between 500 and 700 volunteers, predominantly from Texas, will descend on Iowa to help get out Perry's message. These volunteers will have paid their own way, and will help supplement an already strong network of supporters Perry has established in the state. The result may be an ability to out-organize most of the competition, bringing the same intensity and extensive voter contact that President Obama did in 2008.
Meanwhile, the campaign isn't sitting idly by waiting for the efforts to take hold. They're actively trying to contribute to the narrative that Perry has momentum, releasing a web ad on Wednesday with that very title. It features clips of Perry's stronger recent debate performances, along with flattering headlines and quotes from pundits who say the Texas governor has still got game.
Special Section: Campaign 2012