Perry seeks to win over Iowa, a handshake at a time

LE MARS, Iowa (AP) — Rick Perry is working his way through small-town Iowa one handshake, bear hug and backslap at a time.

The early, hands-on approach from the 2016 presidential prospect contrasts with his failed bid four years ago, when he entered the race relatively late and stumbled in the debates. The former Texas governor says he has more policy knowledge under his belt buckle now and more time for the early states.

“Nobody came to Iowa more in 2014 than I did,” Perry said after speaking to about 20 people at a Pizza Ranch in Sioux Center this past week. “And I will suggest to you that will probably be the case in 2015. If somebody is going to spend more time in Iowa than I am, they better bring their lunch.”

Although politicking in diners and pizza places is hardly new in the leadoff caucus state, Perry has been notably active in some of Iowa’s more out-of-the-way places, which get less frequent traffic from presidential hopefuls. Since 2014, he has made more than a dozen visits to Iowa.

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“I think it’s a good strategy,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, noting that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum employed a similar tactic in 2012 and narrowly won the caucuses. “It’s not a bad strategy to be kind of under the radar and just kind of build.”

Perry, 65, has also been spending time in other early voting states, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. He says he will announce on June 4 whether he’s running for president again.

Perry launched his 2012 presidential bid with fanfare and high expectations, but quickly went from being a front-runner to an also-ran because of gaffes and poor debate performances. This time, Perry is hoping his energetic pursuit of each vote will help people forget his “oops” moment, when he was unable to recall the third of three federal agencies he said he would close if elected president.

Perry’s aides have said he wasn’t prepared when he entered the last presidential race and have blamed his debate problems on a busy schedule and pain medication he was taking after back surgery. After finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses and sixth in New Hampshire’s primary, Perry quit the race.

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“I hadn’t spent the time and the preparations that I should have,” he says now.

During stops in conservative northwestern Iowa, Perry boasted about his record as the longest-serving governor in Texas history, citing his state’s low taxes, limited regulation and caps on civil lawsuit damages. An animated speaker, Perry gestures dramatically as he talks about his farm upbringing, military record and experience in office.

“I don’t just talk about ‘here’s what I would do,’ but I say ‘here’s what I’ve done,'” he said. “This is going to be a show-me, don’t-tell-me election. Executive experience has been what’s been missing out of the White House.”

Texas has a booming population and posted solid job growth during much of Perry’s time as governor, when he served out the end of George W. Bush’s last term and then was elected to three terms from December 2000 to January of this year. But it has the nation’s highest rate of residents without health insurance and the economy has been hurt in recent months by falling oil prices.

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One shadow hanging over him this time: Perry is facing a criminal abuse-of-power indictment in Austin for threatening in 2013 to veto state funding for public corruption prosecutors, then doing so.

If he runs, Perry will enter a race packed with contenders, some of them also former or current governors.

Still, former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn saw opportunity for Perry in the state.

“The good news is, Iowans are going to give Gov. Perry a second chance, and he’s doing all the right things,” Strawn said. “The bad news is, it’s a stronger field of options than four years ago.”

As Perry packs in appearances in early voting states, he’s also quietly expanding his national network, with an advisory board of donors and Republican officials. Many are prominent GOP names from Texas, but the board also has people from financial centers around the country.

Several Iowa Republicans said they were impressed by Perry, though not ready to commit.

“He’s got a great personality,” said Leann Bohlken, 56, of Le Mars, who chatted with Perry in an ice cream parlor. “He didn’t have to share a personal story with me, but he did.”

Peoples reported from Washington.