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Confidence shaken, Rick Perry tries to rescue his 2012 campaign

Holly Bailey
The Ticket

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Perry in Fort Dodge (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

FORT DODGE, Iowa--For weeks, Rick Perry has been everywhere in Iowa, or at least that's how it has felt.

Backed by nearly $4 million in ads, the Texas governor's face has been a ubiquitous presence on television across the state, his voice a constant mainstay on local radio.

"I'm Rick Perry, I'm not ashamed to talk about my faith," he confidently declares in the ads that have been airing almost nonstop in the state since early December.

But when Perry turned up here on Saturday morning, he wasn't the man voters have been seeing on TV. Standing before a crowd of roughly 75 people at Bloomers Coffee Shop, he lacked the confidence and swagger that has defined his long political career in Texas.

Instead, he spoke with an air of uncertainty that captures the state of his campaign, during what could be a last-ditch effort to save his struggling 2012 presidential campaign.

His Republican rivals have long mastered their stump speeches, repeating variations of the same lines at every stop, but Perry spoke cautiously, his eyes drifting repeatedly away from voters in the room and down to pages of prepared text. Dominating his remarks were attacks on Rick Santorum, who has leaped ahead of Perry in the polls here and is now considered his chief rival for viability here and in contests to come.

"Sen. Santorum is a good man. He's got a great family. I respect him substantially. But we do have differences," Perry said, eying his notes.

Echoing a line of attack he unveiled just two days ago, Perry argued that Santorum is a creature of a Washington whose record isn't as conservative as he suggests.

"If you want to truly overhaul Washington, D.C., we can't do that with a senator who has voted to raise the debt ceiling eight different times, allowing our debt to grow from $4.1 trillion to $9 trillion on his watch," Perry said, turning to his next page of text. "That's so much debt, it exceeds what President Obama has done in the White House."

"And what's so important…" Perry paused, glancing at his text. "I've gotta ask Rick, 'What was so important that it compelled you to add greater debt to our children's charge card?'"

Perry's remarks received varying levels of applause from voters here, many of whom used a question and answer session with the candidate to make long statements about their own beliefs rather than quiz Perry on what he would do as president.

With just four days to go before Tuesday's caucuses, Perry is hardly in the place he imagined he would be when he entered the race in August. Once sitting atop the polls here in Iowa, Perry is now statistically tied with Santorum for third place, according to an NBC News/Marist poll released earlier this week.

With the race considered still extremely volatile, Perry's campaign is hoping voters will give him a second look--though the blame game has already begun among members of his staff looking to explain why Perry's candidacy isn't where they had hoped it would be.

A Politico report featuring anonymous sniping among top Perry aides was the backdrop of the Texas governor's events here on Saturday. Recent hires on the campaign blame Perry's initial 2012 advisers for giving him poor advice, according to Politico.

Perry, who did not take questions from reporters at any of his events Saturday, ignored a shouted question about the viability of his campaign and whether he feels that he's finally found the right message that could help save his campaign.

Still, Perry tried to maintain enthusiasm about his 2012 effort. His campaign is already planning beyond Iowa, announcing Saturday that he will fly directly to South Carolina instead of to New Hampshire--in hopes that his message will play better in the first-in-the-South primary.

In Fort Dodge, Perry pointedly told a man who asked if he would support a bill in Texas that would grant embryos the legal status of people that he wasn't sure he would be governor there for much longer.

"I'm not planning on being the sitting governor of Texas," Perry said, grinning, as the audience erupted in polite applause.

But Perry's optimism was undercut a few minutes later by his wife, Anita, who was asked by a voter what her goals would be as first lady.

"We've got so much work to get there that I'm not measuring the drapes," she replied. "But it would be truly be an honor and a pleasure for me to be in that role."

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