Republican kingmakers in Iowa say that support for Rick Perry has weakened as he struggles to gain traction among social conservatives and proponents of border-control reforms.
“When Perry came in, a lot of people were leaning [toward] Perry or at least looking at him very hard,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a 2010 gubernatorial candidate who heads the socially conservative umbrella organization Family Leader.
A poll of likely Republican caucus-goers released Thursday by the American Research Group has the Texas governor in third place with 14 percent, trailing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at 21 percent and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) at 15 percent. Perry saw little increase among Tea Party supporters: Fifteen percent backed him, with 19 percent supporting Bachmann. The poll was conducted Sept. 22-27, encompassing the period after Perry’s last debate performance.
Former Iowa Republican Party Political Director Craig Robinson said that when Perry entered the race, “a lot of Iowans saw him as a more mainstream conservative candidate that could win the nomination, and there were a lot of social conservatives who were ready to go to the Perry campaign.”
But some of Perry’s comments during the debates “have given social conservatives in Iowa heartburn,” Robinson said, pointing to his explanation of his support for requiring girls in Texas to get inoculated against HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer; his opposition to a fence along the Mexican border; and his support for the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented immigrants to get in-state tuition at Texas’s universities.
Robinson, who has not endorsed a candidate, said that despite Perry’s reputation nationally as a hard-line social conservative, evangelical conservatives and other religious Republicans have not warmed to him.
“Perry is not the social conservative candidate in Iowa — he’s playing as the moderate establishment candidate.”
A conference call Perry made earlier this week hints at Perry’s problems with the right.
“The first three issues he addressed were HPV, the DREAM Act and the border fence,” Robinson sad. “That shows how damaging these debates have been to Perry. He’s explaining, and he hasn’t done a very good job of it.”
Sam Clovis, a conservative radio talk-show host in Sioux City, Iowa, who is neutral in the race, said Perry’s stances and weak debate performances have hurt his appeal in the state.
“A lot of people out here are bothered by the inoculation thing he did, and a lot of people are bothered by his stance on immigration. They look at him, as the old adage goes, as ‘big hat, no cattle’ right now,” he said. “I don’t think he’s going to win this out here at all — and I don’t think he’s going to come close.”
Perry spokesman Robert Black emphasized that the campaign is just getting started and that after Perry has a chance to meet with Iowa voters and go through the retail politics of knocking on doors and backyard meetings, he’ll win over voters.
When Perry entered the race, many expected him to quickly cut into Bachmann’s base of Tea Party backers and evangelical Christians in Iowa and pick up some support for those who had backed former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who dropped out of the race days after Perry got in.
While Perry’s bid clearly hurt Bachmann’s campaign nationally by halting momentum she had gained from her win in the Iowa straw poll, the ARG poll indicates her position in Iowa has not been weakened substantially. Republicans in the state said those who have given up on her are moving to other candidates in the state besides Perry, with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) benefiting the most.
Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member who heads the prominent socially conservative Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the field is wide open in Iowa, and many candidates considered to be in the second tier nationally have a good chance to win there — a sentiment Robinson, Vander Plaats and Clovis all shared.
“I don’t think [conservatives] are all headed in the same direction with any candidate,” said Scheffler, who has yet to back a candidate. “Santorum is the one guy that when he gets out there people put him in a higher level — they weren’t expecting to support him and after they engage with him they have second thoughts that they might. He’s been as persistent as anybody and that also earns him credit.”
Black acknowledged that Perry’s debate performances hadn’t helped him, but said that the governor would benefit from meeting with voters in more personal situations.
“Right now, one thing he says can get blown up by a lot of different opponents, and he hasn’t had enough time out in the communities to make sure people understand what his position is,” he said. “So as we do more and more on that I think social conservatives will find someone who’s a champion for their issues and always [has] been.”