When it comes to Rick Perry's presidential campaign, it's do or die in Iowa.
With a new focus on voter meet-and-greets, his Christian faith, and the announcement of a two-week, 42-city bus tour of Iowa starting Dec. 14, the Texas governor has signaled a shift in campaign strategy this month. As the Republican field shuffles in the wake of Herman Cain’s exit, Perry is looking to re-enter the spotlight.
"I readily admit that our campaign didn't go as smoothly and as positively as I would have liked," Perry said Friday in an interview with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.
He admitted to making "errors" and asked Americans—especially Iowans—to "give me a second look." To that end, he is kicking off the bus tour and has signaled that his new priority is retail politics in Iowa—reportedly one of his greatest strengths—rather than debates, which have repeatedly proved stumbling blocks to his campaign.
If Perry can finish in Iowa behind Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, he could survive the state and buy time to build a narrative that his campaign is still alive, and arguably wait for Gingrich’s campaign to implode.
Perry tried to help that goal along this week, going negative on Gingrich for the first time with a new ad that slammed Gingrich and Romney as “big government liberals” due to their past support of the individual healthcare mandate.
While Gingrich seems to have benefited the most from the suspension of Cain’s campaign, with many polls showing him crushing long-term frontrunner Romney, his surge is too recent to be considered completely stable. Romney is sustaining a steady position in the polls in Iowa, even though his campaign’s investment in the state is relatively recent.
If Perry can survive Iowa by beating out the second-tier candidates for third or fourth place—Ron Paul is the other likely candidate to offer him competition—the field will begin to narrow without leaving him behind, predicts GOP political consultant Matt Mackowiak.
Mackowiak is one of the organizers of the “Not Mitt Romney” campaign, an unaffiliated coalition of conservatives looking to undermine Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire. The coalition claims conservative and Tea Party voters still haven’t settled on their anti-Romney candidate and their latest email to supporters suggests it will either be Gingrich or Perry.
“It’s a safe bet to predict Newt is going to flame out again,” Mackowiak said, though he admitted it could take time. Perry has to follow a three-step and “very narrow” path back to the first tier, according to Mackowiak: First, survive Iowa by finishing in the top four; second, win South Carolina, where the primary vote is set for Jan. 21; third, buy enough time for conservatives to coalesce around him as the anti-Romney candidate.
It’s an uphill battle, but Perry has at least a few advantages in Iowa. He ended September with an eye-popping $15 million in the bank. His fundraising has slowed as he has dropped in the polls, but early success kept his campaign out of debt and made it feasible for him to release a handful of ads airing on Iowa TV this week. He has spent $4.4 million in Iowa so far, according to published reports.
Perry also has a super PAC that spent $577,000 supporting him with TV ads airing this week in both Iowa and South Carolina. The group has spent more than $1 million on Perry during the campaign, according to financial disclosures.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich’s campaign, riding a recent wave of fundraising success, is still working toward repaying debts from the last quarter. Gingrich’s campaign organization in Iowa is scrambling to catch up to his new position in the polls, opening key Iowa offices just within the last week.
Gingrich released his first Iowa TV ad this week, spending $250,000 to air it in all Iowa markets. But his campaign will have to rush to organize a 99-county campaign. Gingrich likely hopes to coast on popular support at least for the next few weeks until the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Perry’s drop in the polls earlier this fall has allowed him to step out of the limelight, something he indicated this week has been a benefit.
"I'll let [Gingrich and Romney] get in the ring and go at it," he said of the two current frontrunners, according to MSNBC. "I'll be out campaigning and shaking hands and asking people to support me."
It may not be enough. Perry needs to see movement quickly to gain traction in the state. He is polling well behind Gingrich, Romney and Paul in recent Iowa polls, including the latest, a CNN-Time-ORC poll released on Wednesday where Perry only took 9 percent among likely caucus-goers.
Mackowiak warned that Perry needs to be “really disciplined, really high performance,” and practically flawless from here on, which is a tall order for any candidate, especially one who has made more headlines for his stumbles than his policy ideas.
“It’s going to be almost impossible for Perry to get himself out of the black hole he’s put himself in,” said GOP strategist Ron Bonjean. “[Voters] have to have a big reason to go back to Perry.”