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WILTON, IOWA—The setting couldn't have been more perfect for Rick Perry.
Speaking against the backdrop of a massive green and yellow John Deere tractor parked on a 150-acre corn, alfalfa and soybean farm, the Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate cast himself as someone who would fit right in this rural community in eastern Iowa.
"It's an honor to be on this farm and to get my feet back on some good black fertile soil," Perry said Saturday to a group of 175 people at a barbecue. "It's a real treat to spend some time on a family farm. It reminds me of the place I grew up."
Eying the tractor behind him, Perry, a former cotton farmer, reminisced. "I think an 8640 was the last John Deere tractor like that one that I actually sat on and made a living on… or tried to, let me put it that way," he said. "Dry-land cotton farming is tough to make a go of."
Perry's farm-country roots and ties to the common man have played well in Texas, where they have been a defining part of his long political career. But Perry so far hasn't been as successful in selling that message on the national stage, as he seeks to cast himself as the chief alternative to Mitt Romney in the Republican nomination race.
This week, Perry sought to reset his struggling campaign by bringing in a slew of veteran Republican operatives who have run national campaigns before. But the biggest test of whether the Texas governor can get his 2012 effort back on track is taking place in Iowa, where he would seem to be the natural frontrunner but continues to face serious skepticism among voters. Without winning Iowa, Perry's path to the nomination begins to look implausible, even impossible.
The issues that have haunted him in recent presidential debates are also dogging him here, including his moderate views on the treatment of illegal immigrants and, among social conservatives, his push to inoculate Texas girls against HPV. But Perry's biggest weakness is that he's still struggling to personally connect with Iowans, who feel the governor hasn't invested enough time explaining his positions and doing the kind of person-to-person campaigning the state demands of its political candidates.
Perry went out of his way to thank his supporters for showing up in Wilton last Saturday, but the truth is that many in the audience remained undecided in the Republican contest after his visit. Even though many wore the Perry campaign stickers his staff handed out at the entrance to the event, some voters said afterward they did so because they didn't want to be "impolite."
Jeff Kaufmann, an Iowa state representative who invited Perry to speak at his farm, estimated that at least 75 percent of those who showed up to hear the Texas governor still haven't decided who they will caucus for on Jan. 3. And he should know: Kaufmann is undecided, too.
"We're spoiled rotten here," Kaufmann, a Republican legislator, said, acknowledging complaints that Perry hasn't invested enough time getting acquainted with voters. "Doggonit, we're Iowans, and we want to shake your hand and meet you and look you in the eye."
If he were running Perry's campaign, Kaufmann said he would have the governor doing more traditional campaign events in the state.
"These kind of settings serve him well," Kaufmann said. "If I could make a bold recommendation, it would be to do as many of these as you can fit in between now and January. … He's still viable here, still very much in the running, but he has to work for people's support."
Perry has the reputation of a charismatic campaigner, and on Saturday, he shook hands and signed autographs for audience members who sat at plastic folding tables awaiting his arrival. As he made his way around the audience, he thanked people again and again for coming, but appeared to be slightly stiff—perhaps due to the lingering effects of back surgery he underwent during the summer. He was trailed by four security guards with earpieces, a staff photographer and handful of other campaign aides.
"How are you?" Perry said again and again in his slow Texas drawl.
At the lectern, the governor talked up the values he gained from his rural upbringing.
"You learn a lot growing up on a farm, it doesn't make a difference whether it's Wilton, Iowa, or Paint Creek, Texas," he said. "There's just lots you learn growing up on a farm, it's universal. It's the value of hard work, it's duty to family, to country … Those values you learn on the farm are pretty good values for the president of the United States as well."
And although he did not mention Romney by name, Perry took an obvious dig at the former Massachusetts governor.
"I am not the candidate of the establishment," Perry said at one point. "You won't hear a lot of shape-shifting nuance from me. You're going to hear it straight up. You're going to hear it honest."
After a stump speech heavy on energy policy and a pledge to reform the tax code, Perry deviated from his practice at other recent events in Iowa and took questions from the audience. At one point he was asked about the "root cause" of the country's economic problems. Perry linked it to Washington's out of control spending habits and "one size fits all" approaches, including President Obama's health care plan.
Perry's response prompted loud applause from the audience. But afterward, the questioner, Bill Bargloff, a parts manufacturer from nearby Bennett, Iowa, said he wasn't happy with Perry's response.
"It wasn't the answer I was looking for," Bargloff said, adding that he was hoping that Perry would have talked about the housing crisis. He said was he generally pleased with the Texas governor's appearance but admitted he wasn't sure if it was enough to merit his support.
'I'm still keeping my options open," he said, as he watched Perry get into his SUV and leave the farm. "We've still got a long way to go before the caucus."
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