(Updates with Perry ad campaign in Iowa in 16th paragraph.)
Oct. 24 (Bloomberg) -- The green and yellow John Deere tractor, a model 8760, that loomed as Texas Governor Rick Perry’s backdrop at a campaign event in eastern Iowa this weekend would have been cliché for most presidential candidates.
For Perry, a former cotton farmer and Texas agriculture commissioner, it seemed almost natural.
“It’s good to get my feet back on some good, black fertile soil,” Perry told about 180 people gathered Oct. 22 on a farm in Wilton, Iowa. “I think an 8640 was the last John Deere tractor like that one that I actually sat on and made a living on.”
Whether Iowa will prove bountiful for Perry’s Republican presidential ambitions remains unknown. With Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses 10 weeks away, time is running out.
Perry, 61, was leading national polls of the Republican race a month ago. Since then, his standing in surveys has dropped by as much as 20 percentage points, after debate performances he acknowledged were mediocre and as businessman Herman Cain gained ground to join former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as the party’s front-runners.
If Perry is to regain momentum, his surge most likely will have to start in Iowa, where the lead-off caucuses begin the 2012 nomination process.
“We have seen the ground shift fairly quickly on him,” said Bill Schickel, a co-chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. “He has the potential of making that up, but there is no question that he has work to do.”
A University of Iowa poll conducted Oct. 12-19 showed Cain and Romney leading among likely caucus attendees. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas was the only other candidate with more than 10 percent support.
One burden for Perry in Iowa is concern among party activists about his position on immigration issues.
The topic became prominent after Perry entered the race and offered views -- as governor of the state with the longest border with Mexico -- that veered from party orthodoxy elsewhere. He called proposals for building a fence the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border “idiocy,” and defended the measure he signed that allows Texas high school students lower, in-state tuition rates at state colleges regardless of residency status.
Romney has spotlighted the immigration issue as a key distinction between the two candidates, an indication he views Perry as his prime challenger for the presidential nomination.
Schickel, who described Perry’s campaign operation in Iowa as “pretty good,” said the Texan should benefit from not having to appear in another debate until mid-November.
“He needs to do one-on-one retail campaigning that really sells with the people of Iowa,” Schickel said. “I think he’s a fairly good fit for Iowa, but he has to demonstrate his conservative credentials. He has to relax and be himself. He has to loosen up and have some fun with it.”
A key reason few in Iowa write off Perry is his fundraising prowess. He had $15.1 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, more than the $14.7 Romney had.
The importance of Iowa to Perry’s presidential quest isn’t lost on the candidate. Over the weekend, his campaign sent out e-mails to supporters asking them to volunteer for a “strike force” of about 1,200 people that it wants in Iowa the week before the caucuses, Politico reported.
While earlier visits could still arise, Perry is next scheduled to be in Iowa on Nov. 1 for a candidate forum to be moderated by Governor Terry Branstad. Perry’s campaign also plans a television ad campaign in parts of Iowa this week.
He is scheduled tomorrow to appear in South Carolina where he will outline part of his economic plan, including a flat-tax proposal that would replace the federal tax code.
Romney, 64, is taking a below-the-radar approach to Iowa and seeking to manage expectations for himself in the state.
In his 2008 presidential bid, after an all-out effort to win the caucuses, he finished second behind former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Social conservatives who dominate the Republican caucuses balked at Romney’s past support of abortion rights and a Massachusetts health-care law he signed, and his caucus loss helped derail his candidacy.
This election season, those conservatives have yet to rally around a contender, creating the prospect that they could divide their support between Perry, Cain, Paul, U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. That could create an opening for Romney.
For all his gains in the polls, Cain has scant organization in Iowa -- traditionally a prerequisite for a strong caucus showing. He made his first visit to the state in more than two months over the weekend.
Jeff Kaufmann, a state representative who introduced Perry at the farm event, said he expects the race in Iowa to remain fluid.
“I don’t see Herman Cain’s rise in the polls being sustainable,” Kaufmann said. He added that Perry “has a very good shot” at emerging as the most viable alternative to Romney.
To do that, Kaufmann said, “He will have to step up his time in the state.”
Dennis Hill, 50, an engineer for a rural electric company who lives in Muscatine, Iowa, was one of those who turned out to see Perry in Wilton. He said he’d supported Tim Pawlenty before the former Minnesota governor exited the presidential race after a poor showing in the Iowa Republican straw poll on Aug. 13 -- just as Perry was officially entering the race.
“If I had to vote today, I guess I would vote for Perry,” Hill said. “We gotta know that he will be someone who will be strong and really take it to Barack Obama. We need someone with backbone because this is going to be tough.”
At the Wilton gathering, Perry pressed his case that he shouldn’t be dismissed just yet.
“If the pundits and the establishment think they choose our president, let me tell you, the folks in Iowa and the caucus voters haven’t gotten that memo yet,” he said near an 1876 brick farmhouse.
Romney has questioned Perry’s ability to lead, most recently in an online video that mocked his debate performances. It displayed unflattering close-ups that showed him appearing to be irate, uncomfortable and confused.
“He’s been defined by these debate performances,” said Craig Robinson, editor of the Iowa Republican website and a former state party political director. “He entered the race so late. He just hasn’t had the time to build relationships. When something bad happens, you haven’t built any relationships to insulate yourself from bad news coverage.”
Perry sought to defuse the debate focus with humor as he spoke to about 1,000 social conservatives at a dinner banquet in Des Moines on Oct. 22.
“We are not called to be perfect,” he said. “If any of you have watched my debate performances over the last three or four times, you know I am far from perfect.”
He stressed his anti-abortion record at the forum, which Romney didn’t attend.
“I have taken an unwavering stand in defense of life,” Perry said, offering a clear -- if unstated -- contrast with Romney. “Being pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience. It is a core conviction. And that conviction should include the protection of embryonic stem cells.”
Perry also went pheasant hunting over the weekend in northwest Iowa with U.S. Representative Steve King, an influential Republican in a part of the state where the party’s voters are most concentrated.
Dressed in boots and a vest highlighted with bright orange, it was another way to differentiate himself with Romney, who hasn’t been photographed on a hunting excursion this election season.
“I was excited about getting out and shooting a shotgun and seeing if I had lost my touch -- and I haven’t,” Perry said later in the day. “Those values that you learn on a farm are pretty good values for a president of the United States.”
--Editors: Don Frederick, Mark Silva
To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Wilton, Iowa at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com