Perry now blames the gaffe, and his shoddy performance in general, on the back medication he was taking at the time. But meds aside, the broader problem was that Perry's entire candidacy seemed premised on the idea that he could take shortcuts. His campaign's infrastructure was deeply flawed (his team missed the Virginia ballot deadline) and its staff was cocky (they thought they could skip tiresome tasks like kissing up to Iowans and working the political media). "They were grossly overconfident in their own abilities—crazy confident," marvels Bill Miller, a veteran GOP lobbyist in Austin. "They were playing by their own rules. They thought they were geniuses."
Now Perry is trying hard to check all the boxes he missed a few years ago. "The last 20 months," he informs me, "have been spent in a fairly intensive prep mode on all the big issues that face the commander in chief of this country." Twenty months: In other words, Perry has been working on a reboot since before Mitt Romney's corpse was cold. Last July, he announced he would not seek a fourth full term as governor. Freed from the Texas trail, he has devoted much time to stumping for fellow Republicans across the country, gathering chits, and reintroducing himself to voters in states such as Florida, Pennsylvania—and, of course, Iowa. Last cycle, Perry stiffed the Hawkeye State. "His team resisted help, they denied help, and that hurt him," says Vander Plaats. But Perry is making an appropriate effort this time, notes Vander Plaats, at whose Family Leadership Summit the governor is signed up to speak in early August (along with 2016 maybes Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz). "He's learned that it doesn't do anybody any good to skip the Iowa process," Vander Plaats says. Cracks Bill Miller of Perry's early, multiple Iowa visits, "It's kaffeeklatsch city! If people there are drinking coffee and he's not sitting at the table, it just means he had to go to the bathroom."
The new Perry isn't just working harder than his 2012 incarnation. He's also seeking to occupy a different political space. Last time, Perry ran as a conservative firebrand. This time, with Cruz and others sucking up all the oxygen on the right, he is trying out a new message. Forget the wild-eyed cowboy squawking about how Texas might be forced to secede from the union. Today's Perry is pitching himself as a thoughtful, seasoned elder statesman.
Two weeks before Perry stormed the barbecues of South Carolina, I saw him in Washington as he courted a very different audience: At the St. Regis hotel, he lunched with a couple of dozen reporters, fielding questions and sharing thoughts on the state of the nation, the GOP, and the president. Looking especially presidential—gray suit, burnt-orange tie, and, at 64, still the best head of hair in politics—he bounced from topic to topic, but kept returning to a couple of overarching themes.
For one thing, he hammered home the idea that the GOP (and Dems, too, for that matter) must "stay focused" on putting America back to work and stop "getting distracted" by divisive social issues. This was, as it happened, a topic of intense interest at the media luncheon, since the previous week Perry had caused a mini-tempest by comparing homosexuality to alcoholism at an event in San Francisco. When a reporter coyly broached the subject by asking what sorts of issues Perry considers "a distraction," the governor dove right in, citing his San Francisco gaffe as Exhibit A. ("I stepped right in it!") When pressed, at the luncheon and elsewhere, on whether he considers homosexuality a disorder, Perry repeatedly maintained that his personal views are not pertinent, that decisions on gay rights should be left to the states, and that the federal government has far more pressing crises to confront.
While this line may play well with libertarians and moderate Republicans, the party base includes a heap of values voters who have vowed not to be taken for granted. During his visit to the Palmetto State, I pointed out to the governor that many, many of these folks live in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina. He seemed unperturbed. "A lot of folks know people's records," he said with an easy smile. "My record's pretty clear. I'm a social conservative. But it's not where I need to be spending my time if I'm president of the United States—if that's the project I'm gonna be working on. It shouldn't be. Our candidate I don't think should be bogged down with issues that are not on the front burner of what's facing this country. And what's facing this country right now is an economy that is very sluggish, that has a growth rate that this year may be zero. And foreign policy that's gonna take us years to repair."
Whatever Perry's personal beliefs, this is a far cry from the culture warrior of 2011 who ran a December ad in Iowa lamenting, "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."
Shifting the terms of discussion serves a couple of useful purposes for Perry. First, he sees Texas's roaring economy as his greatest selling point, and he intends to take full credit. He's boiled the state's business-friendly climate down to a four-point laundry list, which he can efficiently tick through at stop after stop: "low taxes, a regulatory policy that is fair and predictable, a legal system that does not allow for over-suing, and accountable public schools." From this thematic base, he can elaborate as much or as little as the particular audience requires.