A Confident Perry Lingers to Make Friends at the Fair
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DES MOINES -- Gov. Rick Perry of Texas was about to be overshadowed by yet another heckler at the Iowa State Fair on Monday when he turned to an old cheerleading trick.
"Do we have any Aggies in the crowd?" asked Mr. Perry, summoning a voice from his days back on the yell squad at Texas A&M as he looked over a swarm of people who gathered to see his debut here as a Republican presidential candidate. "We've got to have some Aggies in the crowd!"
With that, a cheer rose up and the audience burst into applause. The heckler, similar to one who irritated Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann at the same spot a few days earlier, was swiftly silenced. As a satisfying smile stretched across his face, he quickly resumed telling voters why he believes he should be the next president of the United States.
"I get a little bit passionate," Mr. Perry said. "I think you want a president who is passionate about America -- that's in love with America."
The introduction of Mr. Perry as an aspiring presidential candidate unfolded in bite-size pieces as he sauntered across the fairgrounds on the third day of his announcement tour. The path had already been well worn by his Republican rivals who camped out in the state last week, but he breezed in like a long-lost visitor, so confident that he blew kisses into a camera when asked about Mr. Romney.
"Give him my love," Mr. Perry said.
The addition of Mr. Perry to the presidential campaign has changed the landscape of the Republican field -- particularly for Mr. Romney and Mrs. Bachmann -- while injecting a shot of vigor into the contest. Whether making up for lost time or feeling an itch to engage while he had a ready audience, Mr. Perry held a rolling conversation with reporters, interrupted again and again by people rushing over to thank him for joining the race.
Asked about comparisons to George W. Bush, he said: "I'm Rick Perry. He's George Bush. Our records are quite different." He added, "I went to Texas A&M; he went to Yale. George Bush is not my opponent."
Asked about Sarah Palin, he said: "Sarah is a dear friend. She'll make the right decision."
But it was the questions about Mr. Romney that seemed to most engage Mr. Perry.
"Take a look at his record when he was governor. Take a look at my record," Mr. Perry said. A few minutes later, he added: "I wasn't on Wall Street. I wasn't working in Bain Capital," forging directly at the critique that Mr. Romney has made against him -- that his credentials are limited to government service, not deep experience in the private sector.
(At nearly the same time in New Hampshire on Monday, Mr. Romney said it was critical to have experience from the "real economy," but he refrained from direct criticism of Mr. Perry. He added, "I've learned how the economy works, and I believe that skill is what the nation is looking for.")
The long-distance exchange, experience in the public sector versus the private sector, highlights a central argument that will be debated until Republicans choose a nominee next year to challenge President Obama. The bumper sticker message of Mr. Perry's candidacy, "Getting America Working Again," is painted on his campaign bus, which on Wednesday will come within a few miles of Mr. Obama's own bus tour.
"This president has been an abject failure when it comes to the economy," Mr. Perry said.
For his part, Mr. Perry seemed pleased to take as many questions on the subject that came his way, no matter if he was eating a hard-boiled egg on a stick (or two) or slowly savoring a pork chop. He paused for a moment, as he reached a patch of shade on a warm afternoon, and told how he would lower the nation's unemployment rate.
"This is pretty simple stuff," Mr. Perry said. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist. You don't have to have a Ph.D. in economics to understand that you have to keep the taxes low, have a regulatory climate that's fair and predictable and you have a legal system that doesn't allow for over-suing."
The freewheeling atmosphere that surrounded Mr. Perry, whose smile broadened every time a passer-by offered a wave or an encouraging word, stood in contrast to Mr. Romney. Four days earlier, Mr. Romney was surrounded by admirers, too, though he did not linger to absorb the compliments as Mr. Perry did.
Even in casual conservations, Mr. Perry inserted salient pieces of his message, particularly how 40 percent of the jobs created in the United States over the last two years have been in Texas. When a reporter questioned how the same theory could apply to the entire nation, given that many of the jobs came from California and others were specific to the oil and gas industry, Mr. Perry raised his hand to signal silence.
"Come on now, son," he said. "You've got to get your economics hat on here."
If a presidential campaign could be won simply by kissing babies, high-fiving young boys and warmly embracing older women -- all of which Mr. Perry did with an enthusiasm and ease that only the most gifted politicians can muster -- then the transition from governor to candidate could be effortless.
But a morning visit to the state's most influential conservative radio station, WHO-AM, offered a view of the rigors ahead, with every detail from his decade-long record as governor as fair game for a fresh dissection. Listeners peppered Mr. Perry with a variety of questions, asking about an anti-cancer vaccine he required for young girls and his Democrat-to-Republican conversion after serving as Texas chairman for Al Gore's 1988 presidential bid.
"This was Al Gore before he invented the Internet and got to be Mr. Global Warming," Mr. Perry said, explaining how he was surrounded by conservative Democrats growing up in Paint Creek, Tex., before switching parties two decades ago. "When you looked at the candidates, Al Gore was the most conservative candidate out there."
Five months before voters begin making their judgments in the Republican contest, Mr. Perry is racing to introduce himself. He arrived 10 minutes early to deliver a speech at the fair's political soapbox, asking organizers: "Can I just go up there and get after it?" He paused long enough to remind a boy to study hard when school starts later this month.
Asked about his own academic record, which opponents have tried to use against him in previous campaigns, he declared: "I'm going to be graded on how many jobs I created."
First Published August 16, 2011 12:00 am