ELLSTON, Iowa (AP) — Rick Perry still prides himself on being a Bubba.
The former Texas governor relishes laying on the country-boy charm, greeting voters with “Howdy,” talking of growing up on a cotton farm that had an outhouse until he was 6 and boasting that he’s spent more time atop a John Deere tractor than anyone else running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Unlike during his short-lived presidential bid four years ago, though, today’s Perry is decidedly less cowboy — going for country humble instead of country strong. He’s traded his brown ostrich boots, nicknamed “Freedom” and “Liberty,” for sensible shoes, diluted his rugged persona with professorial glasses and tempered the shoot-from-the-hip style that made him something of a gunslinger governor.
Out among Iowa’s summer fields of not-yet-high corn, Perry is hoping he can stand out without his signature swagger. Some wonder, though, if Perry hasn’t lost his distinctiveness, becoming just another middle-aged candidate in casual business attire.
“He looks so different from four years ago,” said Nancy Klein Dykstra, 58, who accepted Perry’s firm handshake at a community center in rural Ellston, about 80 miles southeast of Des Moines. “I thought I remembered him being kind of a robust, big guy, big presence.”
Perry admits that he’s ditched much of the bravado of his first presidential run. He hopes a more down-to-earth approach will help him in Iowa, where he’s spent more time than any presidential candidate so far. He says of Iowans: “I don’t think they care whether it’s someone who has any swagger or not.”
Still, it’s been a mega-makeover for Perry, once given a “Top Cowboy of Texas” award, and who used a laser-sighted pistol to shoot a coyote while jogging in a sparsely populated corner of Austin during his time as governor. On Saturday, Perry walked on stage at a conservative forum in black dress shoes; no fewer than four of his Republican rivals wore cowboy boots at the same event.
The transformation isn’t sitting well with some back home.
“He’s gotta wear boots; he’s from Texas,” said Rocky Carroll, a Houston bootmaker who has been stitching together custom pairs for Perry since he became state agriculture commissioner in 2001.
Perry wears size 10 ½ E, the same size Carroll’s fitted to another client, George W. Bush. But Perry stopped wearing the boots last year, saying they hurt his back.
That’s an especially sore subject since Perry had stem cell surgery in July 2011 to fuse his spine and said post-op painkillers were partly to blame for the collapse of his first presidential campaign.
Carroll said he lowered the heels on Perry’s boots afterward to make them easier on his back.
“He said, ‘They fit all right now,'” Carroll recalled.
But Perry hasn’t gone back to boots, instead often lacing up dress Oxfords, like most of his GOP rivals. He frequently wears dark suits and squirms uncomfortably in them at times.
Also gone from 2012 is Perry’s brash verbal style. In that campaign, he suggested Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s economic policies were “treasonous” and Social Security was a Ponzi scheme. This time, Perry largely sticks to talking points and centers his message on his strong job-creation record in Texas.
His folksiness hasn’t totally fallen away, however. Perry is fond of expressions like “the horse is out of the barn,” and he likes to joke that the 2.5 million people added to Texas’ population during his 14 years as governor meant “a lot of new pickup trucks.”
In Ellston, where a Sunday evening crowd of about 80 sampled seven different varieties of homemade pie prepared for his visit, Perry asked 19-year-old Emily Green where the red, white and blue cowboy boots she was wearing were made. When she said Puerto Rico, he exclaimed: “Good lord, girl! We’ve got to get you some El Paso boots.”
Don Kass, chairman of western Iowa’s Plymouth County Republican Party, met Perry recently and said the two “had a long conversation about a cow herd.”
To be sure, Texans Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush governed with plenty of Texas swagger of their own — Bush is remembered for invoking the “dead or alive” poster of the Old West in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But Dave Carney, top political strategist for Perry’s 2012 campaign, said they toned down that brashness when campaigning in early primary states, and Texans who didn’t — Perry in 2012 and Phil Gramm among them — saw their home-state style backfire.
“As a leader of a state like Texas, that is very effective, but it doesn’t necessarily wear well in other states,” Carney said. “You talk about swagger, but there’s not a lot of success there.”