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Campaign 2012

Perry rides wave of enthusiasm into Iowa

His debut, Pawlenty exit, Bachmann win alter race

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / August 15, 2011

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WATERLOO, Iowa - Governor Rick Perry of Texas, buoyed by the splash of his nascent presidential campaign, arrived here yesterday to a crush of supporters as he entered a Waterloo dining hall with a disco ball on the ceiling.

“Good to have you back on board, brother,’’ he told one man.

“Give me five’’ he yelled at a young boy. “That’s a boy!’’

“Yes, ma’am,’’ he told an older woman after she asked for (and received) a big hug. “Thank you. Keep us in your prayers.’’

As he walked away, she squealed to a friend, “He’s a good old Southern boy!’’

“These people are just - it’s all friendly,’’ Perry said. “You’d think you was in Texas if you didn’t know better.’’

Perry’s visit here capped an explosive few days in the Republican nominating contest and brings further clarity to the contours of the race. Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota, dropped out yesterday, after his once-promising campaign could not overcome a disappointing third-place finish in Saturday’s Ames Straw Poll in Iowa.

Representative Michele Bachmann, also of Minnesota, won the nonbinding but symbolically significant poll and emerges as a stronger contender.

Bachmann and Perry, who both came to Waterloo yesterday for a GOP county fund-raising dinner, are now trying to position themselves as the chief alternative to Mitt Romney in the GOP race. They are likely to try to draw sharper contrasts with Romney, making it harder for him to avoid intraparty squabbling and focus solely on President Obama.

Bachmann made a dramatic entrance after Perry spoke, waiting several minutes as the crowd clapped to the music.

“Fifty days ago, we launched the beginning for our candidacy to take the White House back from Barack Obama and finally turn the country around,’’ Bachmann said, displaying the front page of the hometown paper declaring her the straw poll winner.

She never acknowledged Perry, and he left while she was on stage signing autographs.

Perry’s entry in the race almost immediately challenges Romney’s standing as the Republican frontrunner, analysts said.

He is able to contrast himself with the former Massachusetts governor in numerous ways, trying to exploit many of Romney’s perceived shortcomings and possibly forcing him into a more aggressive campaign after months of summer doldrums.

“If I was Romney, I would be significantly nervous now,’’ said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster not affiliated with any of the campaigns. “Perry is absolutely a serious threat . . . in that he can get establishment support that may not have been available to Bachmann, but he’s also a more formidable conservative opponent. It just pushes Romney further left.’’

Perry will almost certainly attempt to undercut Romney’s focus on jobs and the economy by touting that Texas created more than a third of the nation’s jobs over the past two years, while Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation during Romney’s four-year term.

Where Romney can be awkward with voters, Perry will highlight folksy aphorisms. Where Romney is distrusted by some Tea Party activists and social conservatives, Perry has credibility with both. To date, Romney has by far been the field’s most prolific fund-raiser, but Perry will probably be able to challenge that, too.

“The root of the governor’s philosophy has always been job creation,’’ said Mark Miner, a spokesman for the Perry campaign. “There’ll be plenty of time to contrast the issues with other candidates, but the governor’s focused on what he has to offer and what he has done as a leader.’’

Perry and Romney are both planning to emphasize New Hampshire this week. Romney has several events planned in the North Country today and tomorrow. Perry, after spending today and tomorrow in Iowa, is planning to return to New Hampshire for campaign events around the state Wednesday and Thursday. He opened his campaign Saturday in South Carolina and New Hampshire.

A Romney aide insisted yesterday that campaign strategists have viewed Pawlenty, not Perry, as their biggest threat in the field, and they were relieved that Pawlenty had exited the race. Romney issued a statement praising Pawlenty for running “an honorable campaign.’’

With Perry, the Romney campaign intends to focus on his lack of experience in the private sector and his longtime tenure in government - a record that could be considered a hindrance at a time when public distrust in government is high. Romney alluded to his experience last week, when it became clear Perry would join the race.

“I think I’m the right guy to be the Republican nominee for president, in part because I spent 25 years in the private sector and I know how the economy works,’’ Romney told reporters after a business roundtable in Pella, Iowa.

Romney has taken a low-key approach to the campaign so far, going for long stretches without a public event and focusing almost all of his energy on Obama and none of it on his Republican rivals. That approach largely worked in a field that never really challenged Romney, but the new dynamics in the race will almost certainly change that.

It also could force Romney to put more emphasis on Iowa, a state that he has largely ignored so far as he has focused on New Hampshire. Romney made no effort to campaign for the straw poll, but Perry still beat him when his supporters waged a write-in campaign when his name didn’t appear on the ballot.

Still, Romney has experience on a national stage that Perry lacks, and the Texas governor remains largely untested.

But Perry exudes a folksiness that often eludes Romney.

Arriving Saturday night at a house party in Greenland, N.H., Perry ducked out onto a porch and said to the crowd, “Hi, y’all,’’ before working through the group and shaking hands.

Later he held a question-and-answer session with the more than 150 guests that lasted nearly twice as long as his formal speech to the crowd.

“Y’all holler out a question, I’ll repeat it, and away we go,’’ he instructed.

As he called on questioners and listened to their query, he repeatedly remarked, “Yes, sir,’’ or “Yes, ma’am’’ to the questioners.

In a political sense, one of Romney’s greatest vulnerability is a series of policy flip-flops as he transitioned from a candidate in more liberal Massachusetts to a national figure reliant on his party’s conservative base to win its presidential nomination.

Perry is vulnerable on that front, too, in that he is a former Democrat who once chaired Al Gore’s 1988 campaign in Texas.

Yet the Texas governor has been a Republican since 1989, and he was unafraid of acknowledging that he made a mistake, such as when he signed an executive order requiring teenage girls in Texas to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine to prevent the sexually transmitted disease. The Texas Legislature later overruled that decision.

“Here’s what I learned: When you get too far out in front of the parade, they will let you know,’’ Perry told his New Hampshire audience Saturday when asked about the vaccine. “And that is exactly what our Legislature did and I saluted it and I said, ‘Roger that, I hear you loud and clear,’ and they didn’t want to do it and we don’t. So, enough said.’’

Perhaps Romney’s greatest hope against Perry is the concern that the broader electorate has tired of brash Texas politicians after the recent eight-year tenure of another who served as Texas governor, George W. Bush.

Pawlenty said yesterday that he would probably endorse another candidate at some point. He also said he would not want to be considered as a vice presidential pick. In 2008, he was on the shortlist to be John McCain’s running mate, before being bypassed for Sarah Palin.

“I’ve been down that road before,’’ he said. “That’s not something I’m even going to consider.’’

Glen Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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