WAVERLY, IA. – Cole Chestnut, Matt Mummelthei, and Jake Englin are caucusing for the first time this January. After their Waverly High School basketball scrimmage concluded yesterday afternoon, the three self-described political enthusiasts decided to head over to "The Flying Goat" bar and grill to check out Texas Governor Rick Perry. In one booth inside the dimly-lit restaurant, an elderly retired science teacher and his wife, both torn between Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, made the trip from their nearby rural community and expressed excitement about the upcoming vote.
In sharp contrast with fellow social conservative Michele Bachmann, Perry is drawing good crowds across Iowa, and enthusiastic ones at that. A recent poll from NBC News has Perry in an effective tie for third place in Iowa with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, but his support seems largely apolitical. A mom and dad from Kansas City, Missouri in town to visit their daughter at local Wartburg College couldn't resist the opportunity to meet the Governor, but their attraction to the candidate had the distinctive air of celebrity curiosity as opposed to electoral affinity. So too, one gets the impression from Perry's handlers that he's a movie star, not a politician.
I last visited with Rick Perry back in October in New Hampshire, when I expressed the opinion that his aggressive security detail was a mismatch for intimate early voting states. Two months later, as Perry's campaign remains on life support and needs a strong finish in Iowa to remain viable, not much has changed. Only Perry's grown daughter, Sydney, seemed aware of the downsides of her father's bodyguards pushing aside the press, who in turn ended up in the laps of little old ladies that complained they couldn't see, let alone "meet and greet," the Governor as he was ushered down a narrow aisle of the restaurant.
Maybe this is the only way the Perry campaign could have conducted itself. At one point in his stump speech, Perry noted that Texas is the world's thirteenth largest economy, and perhaps such a prominent political figure requires a constant security presence, but the one who's ultimately hurt by that unfriendly atmosphere is the Governor himself, whose true charm shines through when meeting with voters one-on-one.
Unlike his opponents, Perry now utilizes a leather folder filled with talking points to aide his short stump speech. This subtle touch helped make that opening segment of the campaign stop easily his strongest, but when it came time to answer questions from the audience, Perry's tangled rhetoric that foiled him in debates earlier this year reemerged. Some things you just can't change.
Some say the ticket to a successful campaign is to pick a strategy and stick with it. Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman fall firmly into this category and, to an extent, both have begun to see the benefits of holding their course. Other candidates haven't been afraid to rebrand their campaigns as the market changes or their initial strategies meet stiff resistance. Mitt Romney, whose 2008 strategy of rigorous town hall meeting appearances and a substantial monetary investment in Iowa has had a noticeably smaller presence in the state and could very well be on the verge of sewing up the nomination. No one approach is necessarily better than the other, but with the majority of his tumultuous campaign now behind him, Perry ought to have realized he fell in that latter camp months ago, and changed course.
Quickly shuttled from event to event and cushioned from voters by his own staff, Rick Perry may well be the most presidential-looking candidate to fall short of his party's nomination.