IOWA CITY, Iowa – He’s traded in cowboy boots for stylish glasses, and social issues for promoting the arts. It sometimes seems like Rick Perry isn’t just courting Iowa Republicans—he’s making a play for the hipster vote.
On a four-day swing through barnyard barbecues and backyard ice-cream socials in the first-in-the-nation presidential nominating state, the Texas governor presented a revamped image—in style at least, no longer the Bible-thumping hardliner who mused about secession and seemed to embody his state’s ethos of rugged independence. And he offered an early glimpse of how he’ll try to overcome the issues that plagued his last run for the White House in 2012.
The Iowa caucuses are still a year and a half out, and Perry hasn’t yet said he’s running—technically, he was in the Hawkeye State to campaign for local GOP candidates. Still, if he does run, as the longtime governor of the nation’s largest and most important red state and an often skilled performer on the stump, he could re-emerge as a top-tier contender, with a built-in fundraising base. And the amount of time he’s spent in Iowa lately has only added to the speculation.
But Perry’s challenge will be to solve the twin problems from his last run. Back then, he often seemed ill-prepared on policy questions— “oops,” he famously mumbled at a debate after blanking on the third federal agency he wanted to eliminate. He also allowed himself to be painted by his primary rivals as a bleeding-heart liberal on immigration, saying those opposed to in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants don’t “have a heart.” Perry finished fifth in Iowa, and dropped out of the race soon afterward.
This time around Perry’s stump speech focuses heavily on the need for border security, and on his four ingredients to successful governing—low taxes, stable regulatory environment, tort reform, and accountable public schools—which he rattled off without an ‘oops’ moment.
“Border security is a very real threat to this country,” said Perry Monday at a business roundtable in Des Moines. “There is a criminal element that knows that the border is porous and they’re taking advantage of it.”
Earlier this summer, Perry took the dramatic step of deploying some 1,000 National Guard troops to stem the surge of child immigrants, many unaccompanied, into the Rio Grande Valley. Asked after an event in Grand Mound what he was doing to address the needs of the children, Perry seemed at pains to avoid showing too much compassion.
“They’re being addressed,” he said, adding that it was “not the bigger issue from [his] perspective.”
Evangelicals made up more than half of all Republican caucus-goers last time around. But Perry on this trip seemed eager to downplay social issues, despite his hard line on immigration.
Asked about a brief last week by Texas lawmakers arguing that same-sex marriage could lead to “other morally reprehensible actions” – including bigamy, incest, pedophilia and group marriage—Perry said only that he was on the side of Texans, who voted overwhelmingly for the state’s gay marriage ban. “The conversation is about that,” he added.
It’s a far cry from two years ago, when Perry released an ad that declared: “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
Same sex marriage is legal in Iowa. And Perry’s shift in tone could help appeal to younger Republicans, 61% of whom support marriage equality, according the Pew Research Center.
“What I want to see personally is a more moderate conservative who’s willing to tout the economy first, and maybe change up the norm a little on social issues,” said 24-year-old Emily Claghorn of Des Moines at an event Sunday for a state Senate candidate where Perry appeared. “I think it would be more beneficial for the party as a whole.”
Perry’s new look might fit nicely with that effort. Gone are the signature cowboy boots that Perry once sported on the cover of Newsweek in 2010 with the Texas slogan “Come and take it.” He tossed the boots earlier this year because he said they worsened his back problems, an ailment to which he attributed many of his 2012-related missteps.
And then there are the glasses—dark, thick-rimmed, all-around cool–that go nicely with his all-black attire, which he stuck with despite the oppressive heat of Iowa in August. Taking the stage at the Family Leadership Summit on Saturday in Ames, Perry, tieless with a black blazer, offered a sharp contrast with the more conventional style of his potential challengers for the Republican nomination, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Perry also has taken an unlikely interest in the arts scene. During a business roundtable in Des Moines Monday, the governor highlighted an article that appeared in that day’s Register, describing efforts by state officials to promote cultural centers throughout Iowa.
“The cultural arts, by and large, that’s not what people think about the Republican party,” said Perry. “It doesn’t need to be the first thing, but it needs to be something where people think, you know what, because of their policies, they make the quality of life better.”
In other ways, though, it’s the same Rick Perry. The governor still has that loopy way of talking with his whole body, which last time around sparked questions about his mental state. He still lists the Second and Tenth Amendments as his favorites, though he insists he likes them all (“It’s like picking two of your favorite ten children!”).
And Perry took a hawkish stance on Iraq, saying stopping the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) may mean putting “boots on the ground.”
Still, Perry sounds confident that this time around he just might have a pitch that Iowans respond to. At a campaign stop in Eldridge Sunday for a Republican House candidate, he was asked about the status of his relationship with the state.
“Better than it was two and half years ago!” he responded. “It’s kind of like with my wife. We learn about each other and we respect each other better.”