DUBUQUE, Iowa – While the cloud of a criminal indictment looms over him at home, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is here, 1,100 miles from Austin, gazing at a collage of family photographs on a wall in the home of Iowa donors who are eager to help make him a Republican contender for the White House.
It’s the day after Labor Day weekend, and Perry has come to the Hawkeye State to campaign for House candidate Rod Blum, a political newcomer who’s running to represent the state’s 1st Congressional District. Of course, in so doing, Perry also is raising his own profile in preparation for a second presidential bid. This is the seventh trip he’s taken to the state that hosts the first contest of the long American presidential race, and the first campaign swing since a county grand jury indicted him on charges of abuse of power and coercion of a public servant, both felonies in the state of Texas.
But here, at a fundraiser in the private home of Grady and Coletta Ivy, among donors sipping Texas-brewed Shiner Ruby Redbird beer, Perry’s legal drama back home seems a world away.
After a private question-and-answer briefing with an elite group of donors in the basement, Blum stood in a sun-drenched dining room before a spread of chocolate-covered strawberries and introduced Perry to the rest of the group.
When it was his turn to speak, Perry made his message clear: Iowa must send Republicans to the House and Senate in 2014 to pave the way for Obama’s successor. Whoever that may be. (Wink, wink.)
“Unless we get 2014 right, it makes 2016 either more attainable or more difficult,” Perry said. “Rod Blum makes it more attainable.”
The fundraiser was the final stop for Blum and Perry after a day full of activities together, which included a morning health-care policy briefing, an afternoon rally at a campaign office in Hiawatha and a tour of a metal manufacturing facility in Dubuque. The duo spent the day riding together across the district in an SUV, talking policy, telling personal stories and bonding over the difficulty of eating corn dogs at the Iowa State Fair in front of news cameras, a rite of passage for candidates of any stripe looking to woo Iowa voters. The trip gave Perry and Blum a chance to get to know each other, a relationship that will prove beneficial for both men: Blum, currently nationally unknown, got to be seen with a high-profile Republican, while Perry got a chance to charm someone who could provide a handy endorsement if he wins a House seat this November. Blum, who has met previously with other 2016 hopefuls such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, says he will likely choose a candidate to endorse closer to the date of the Iowa caucuses in 2016.
Back in Texas, Perry is dealing with troubles in the final months of his tenure as the state’s chief executive. Exactly two weeks earlier, he walked into the Travis County criminal justice center near his home in Austin to submit to police officers, who inked his fingers for prints and snapped a mug shot. Perry, looking dapper in a blue tie and suit, smirked for the camera. A grand jury had indicted him on two counts of felony charges when he vetoed funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit. Perry withheld the funds after Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat, refused to step down from her post when she was caught driving while intoxicated, a charge to which she pleaded guilty.
As a result, the grand jury found that Perry abused his power by using the veto in an attempt to coerce her out of office. (Republicans—and even many Democrats—shrugged off the charges as a political stunt that would lead nowhere.)
Perry insists he did nothing wrong and stands by his veto. He showed off his confidence by tweeting a picture of himself casually enjoying an ice cream cone immediately after the police processed him and by selling T-shirts featuring a picture of his Internet-famous mug shot. On Labor Day, his Twitter account even posted a photo of Lehmberg with text across the front that read “Most drunk person in Texas.” Perry promptly deleted the photo and claimed it was an “unauthorized tweet.”
And on Tuesday, this “what, me worry?” candidate shipped off to greener pastures in Iowa.
“It’s appropriate for me to continue to do my work,” Perry told a reporter at the Hiawatha rally who asked if he thought it was prudent to be campaigning before the case against him had been closed. “The legal team’s working on the indictment, so I’m not the least bit concerned that it’s distracting me from doing my job, which is making this country more competitive. All the other things will take care of themselves.”
Blum didn’t think that associating with an indicted man would hurt him, either.
“I’m proud to stand next to the governor. I’m a career businessman. We are accustomed to and used to frivolous lawsuits, and I’ve had them throughout my career,” Blum said. “We hardly discussed this issue when we found out that Governor Perry was going to be kind enough to come here.”
Despite a disastrous initial run for the presidency in 2012, which gave many the impression that Perry was unprepared for national exposure, the Texas governor is keeping his options open for another go at it in 2016.
One thing he wants people to know: The back injury pain that afflicted him during his last bid — and that contributed to his apparent ineptness — is a thing of the past.
“My back’s healed,” he told the owner of Giese Manufacturing in Dubuque, after the owner cautioned Perry before he reached to lift a metal lamp that was made at the plant. Perry proved the claim over the next 15 minutes by bending repeatedly to peek under equipment during the tour of the plant’s metal shop.
He has also brushed up on policy and is working to solidify his place within the Republican field as an expert on immigration, an issue he handles closely as governor of a border state. The Mexican border is a constant topic of his speeches, and his tough talk and policies on it are one of his strongest points of appeal among conservative supporters. Those who followed the 2012 campaign will recall how, early on, Perry was criticized for his outspoken support for providing public services to children of illegal immigrants, suggesting that those who don’t extend a helping hand to those in need don’t “have a heart.” The comment, which he made at a debate at a conservative conference in Florida in September 2011, spelled the beginning of the end for his presidential aspirations. He seems determined not to look so soft this time around.
Perry has also moved to differentiate himself on foreign policy by directly challenging libertarian Republican Rand Paul, another possible 2016 contender, whom Perry accused of supporting “isolationism” in an out-of-nowhere July op-ed for The Washington Post. (Paul responded with his own piece in Politico magazine and has advocated for using U.S. military action against the terrorist group known as ISIL or ISIS, but only with congressional approval.)
“I still stand by my op-ed,” Perry told me after his tour of the metal plant. “I’ve seen the cost of America being at war. But with that said, the United States must use its influence in the world. I would suggest to you that it is very important for us to stop evil threats there rather than here.”
During his run for president in 2012, Perry said that if elected, he would send American troops back into Iraq. Given the situation today, as ISIL’s grip grows stronger on Iraq and parts of Syria, does he still support a boots-on-the-ground approach?
“I don’t think the leader of the free world ever gives an explanation of what he is going to do or what he is not going to. I don’t think that is in anyone’s best interest to say, ‘Here’s what I’m going to take off the table’ or ‘Here’s what I’m necessarily going to do’ and signal to your enemies what your actions are going to be,” Perry said, sort of dodging the specific question, but also not shutting down the idea of sending ground forces into Iraq.
Instead, Perry said, the president ought to work with Western allies to arm the Kurds in the north of Iraq. “Get that equipment to them, and they will take care of the business so that we don’t have to have boots on the ground,” he said.
Then, almost as expected, Perry moved the discussion back to the border, the topic he seems most comfortable discussing in detail.
“You would be a very, very naive individual to think that ISIS has not thought about, if not already used, the southern border to penetrate into the United States to do evil acts,” he said. “ISIS is not going to go away. It’s not the junior varsity. This is an evil, well-financed, well-trained force that is going to do everything that it can to bring its caliphate into being, and it’s a threat to the United States. I take them at their word. So we need to be doing everything we can to express our power and express our authority there before it ends up here.”
Perry’s visit to Iowa this week was a quick trip — no more than a few hours spent with Blum in a couple of cities — but in these early “one-car caravan” days of the presidential cycle, the chance to put a personal touch on campaigning goes a long way.
After his speech at the Ivys’, Perry darted out to a waiting SUV to catch his flight home, where the indictment lingers.
But here in Iowa, a place that will determine his political future more than Texas, his fans seem as unconcerned about it as he does.
“Obviously it’s political skullduggery,” Grady Ivy, who hosted the Blum fundraiser, told me after Perry departed. “How can you indict a governor for saying that he’s going to veto something?”
And that mug shot? A net plus, Ivy said.
“He took the approach to the mug shot perfectly,” he said. “It made him out to look like somebody from GQ.”