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With New Look And More Energy, Rick Perry Tries To Move Past 'Oops'

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sporting black-rim glasses, speaks at a Pizza Ranch in Sioux Center, Iowa, last week.
Nati Harnik
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, sporting black-rim glasses, speaks at a Pizza Ranch in Sioux Center, Iowa, last week.

The Rick Perry that Iowans were promised in 2012 may have finally shown up — four years too late.

The former Texas governor's much-heralded first presidential run quickly cratered four years ago, beset by stumbles from a candidate who was still recovering from back surgery and never seemed to find his footing on a national stage.

But in May in campaign stops in Northwest Iowa, the likely GOP presidential hopeful was back to his gregarious, confident self on the first of three days he spent barnstorming a state that could make or break his 2016 comeback hopes.

Walking into a meet and greet at a bank in Rock Rapids, Perry bounded into the room, sure to shake every hand and greet every person by name (his staff had passed out nametags) with his long, Texas drawl before beginning his speech — right down to the last row, who he jokingly chided as "backbenchers."

Listen to NPR's Don Gonyea's report for Morning Edition on Perry trying to make a comeback:

Perry looks more at ease this time around — gone are the pressures of office, leaving the governor's mansion after 14 years this January. He now wears dark-rimmed glasses, which have become his trademark on campaign literature, and more comfortable dress shoes instead of cowboy boots.

He talks of optimism and a time of new birth in America in his stump speech – but that, too, is what he needs to save his own political hopes. He's currently mired in low single digits in state and national polling.

"I like this part of the country, and I like this time of the year. You're starting to see the corn; you're being able to row the corn, and it's an optimistic time of the year," he tells a crowd of about 40 people. "This is when we know we're going to make a good crop, and we're gonna get a good price for it. We are eternal optimists."

Perry talks often about his humble upbringings in tiny Paint Creek, Texas, where he says he was born into a family of eternal optimists — his parents were dry land cotton tenant farmers. To such an agriculture-dependent state, he aims to speak their language.

Trying To Get Past 'Oops'

"I wasn't healthy. You all know the health stories — it was what it was."

This time around, he's hoping to tell his own personal story and about the economic success of the Lone Star State he didn't get to parlay in 2012. His failure four years ago was crystallized in a single word — "Oops."

When Perry announced in August 2011, he was leading Iowa polls, but that didn't last long. After already appearing sluggish and out of sorts at times on the trail, his political fate that year was sealed when, in a November nationally televised debate, he started to list the three agencies he would abolish as president — first Commerce, Education and then — a long, treacherous pause.

After mumbling for a bit, he finally tried to laugh it off, telling the audience, "I can't, the third one. I can't. Sorry. Oops."

He would never recover, finishing fifth in the caucuses, sixth in the New Hampshire primary, and ending his campaign even before South Carolina.

Perry himself acknowledges he wasn't prepared, either physically or mentally, for the rigors of a national campaign back then.

"I wasn't healthy. You all know the health stories — it was what it was," he wistfully told reporters after speaking at a Pizza Ranch in Sioux Center later that day. "I hadn't spent the time in preparation that I should have."

State Sen. David Johnson, who represents this portion of Northwest Iowa, empathizes. He's had three back surgeries himself. The Republican supported the former Texas governor in 2012 and says he'll be with him this time, too. Perry is expected to announce his candidacy June 4 in Dallas.

"I see an absolutely different Rick Perry," Johnson said. "He has done his homework. He has studied very seriously the issues, both foreign and domestic, that this country faces."

'A Governor Who Doesn't Have To Govern Right Now'

Johnson pointed out another advantage Perry has this time around over some of his fellow rivals.

"He's a governor who doesn't have to govern right now," he said. "He is free to get out there and campaign."

Other governors considering running, like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, New Jersey's Chris Christie and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal, are struggling to balance governing at home with the amount of time they spend on the campaign trail. But Perry doesn't have that dance this time around.

Perry holds the distinction as the longest-serving governor in Texas history. That executive experience is something he touts heavily on the trail, taking not-so-veiled shots at the trio of first-term senators — Florida's Marco Rubio, Kentucky's Rand Paul and fellow Texan Ted Cruz — who are also running.

"Executive experience is what's been missing out of the White House," he told a voter in Sioux Center. "After eight years of this young, inexperienced United State senator, I think America is going to be ready for somebody who's got a proven track record and results."

On foreign policy, Perry touts his own military experience — along with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, he's one of just two veterans on the GOP side — and his record on immigration as governor of the state with the longest southern border.

A Smaller Margin For Error This Time Around

He jokes, at the two campaign stops and at the Iowa Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner the Saturday before, that the U.S. "lived through Jimmy Carter — we'll make it through Barack Obama."

But he doesn't lose an optimistic tone throughout his speeches.

"I believe with all my heart, as soon as the sun's going to come up in the east tomorrow, that the best days of this country are in front of us," he tells voters. "We're just a few good decisions and a leadership change at the top from the best days this country has ever seen."

But to be a part of that leadership change, Perry first has to convince voters he's changed as well.

Lyon County GOP Chairman Josh Bakker, who hasn't endorsed anyone yet, warned that Perry has a smaller margin for error this time around than other candidates. In other words, there can't be any more "Oops's."

"He better say sharp, I'll just say that," Bakker said. "I mean, if he does that again a time or two that would probably hurt."

NPR's Don Gonyea contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.