ORANGE CITY, Iowa — Rick Perry has lost some of his Texas swagger. Maybe that's what happens when a governor tops Republican presidential polls the minute he joins the race, only to plummet after a shaky debate performance.
Whatever the cause, it was a more careful Perry who campaigned in Iowa on the weekend, trying to get his campaign back on track before Tuesday's debate in New Hampshire and an Oct. 18 debate in Las Vegas. Rather than the new sheriff in town, he looked more like a cowboy cautiously remounting his horse after a surprising throw.
In four Iowa towns in two days, the Texas governor stuck to his stump speech, sometimes glancing at notes. He took a half dozen questions from voters at each stop, but none from the numerous reporters around him. He shook some hands and posed for pictures in the small but crowded restaurants his staff selected, but he left before others could greet him. Some voters appeared eager for more love than he returned.
Perry never mentioned his chief rival, Mitt Romney by name. It's possible, however, that he was thinking of the former Massachusetts governor when he repeatedly said Iowans measure leaders "by how they walk, not how they talk" on issues such as job creation.
Perry seemed so eager to stick to his talking points that he passed up some softball pitches. Asked in Orange City what books have influenced him, Perry didn't mention the Bible or the works of famous Americans. He cited only the late Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, a strong advocate of free markets, then veered back into his familiar criticisms of President Barack Obama's stimulus programs.
Perry has sharpened his answers about illegal immigrants, the topic that bedeviled him in the Sept. 22 debate, and which several Iowa Republicans pointedly raised this weekend. A woman in Spencer said she could not understand why he agreed to give in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants in Texas.
Perry defended the program. But he avoided suggesting that its critics have no heart, as he did in the last debate, to widespread criticism. He stuck entirely to economic reasons.
"Are we going to create a class of tax wasters or are we going to create taxpayers?" he asked, describing the difference between immigrants who don't go to college and those who do. "Texas chose the latter."
Several skeptics seemed unconvinced, as Perry drew less of a distinction between illegal immigrants and U.S. citizens than they wanted to hear.
Speaking to another woman who challenged him as he was leaving the event in Orange City, the governor said: "Anyone who moves to the state of Texas and spends three years there, they are eligible for in-state tuition. So no free ride at all."
Perry addressed the tuition issue only when asked, but at every stop he eagerly detailed several of his get-tough positions on immigration. They included his vetoing a bill that would have let illegal immigrants obtain Texas driver's licenses, spending heavily on border security, and his endorsement of a law requiring photo identification cards for Texans seeking to vote.
Perhaps the best news for Perry is that many party activists don't seem concerned about specific incidents and snafus that drive TV talk shows. Few of them appear passionate about Romney, giving the Texan an opening to regain momentum.
These GOP activists care intensely about ousting Obama, however, and Perry has a way to go in showing them he's the one to do it.
"I'm waiting to be convinced," said Mary Dittmer, 61, moments before Perry took the stage in Tiffin on Friday, his only east Iowa stop of the weekend before flying to the state's deeply conservative northwest quadrant. She said she's lukewarm about Romney, mainly because he mandated health insurance coverage in Massachusetts. But Perry hasn't closed the deal, Dittmer said, and she's still weighing other candidates including Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich.
People interviewed at the Johnson County GOP barbecue in Tiffin expressed no interest in recent dust-ups about Romney's Mormonism, the name of a Texas hunting camp used by Perry, or the finer details of Perry's debating skills
"We don't have to have a great debater," said Lynn Yoder, 69, a carpenter and garage door salesman. "We need a good leader."
The issues that prompted Perry's fall in several polls, Yoder said, seem "manufactured."
Some Republicans at all four Iowa stops, however, said Perry seems too sympathetic to illegal immigrants. News of Texas' tuition policy "bothered me when it first came out," said Jim Lichty, 58, a land surveyor.
"I have a very strong record on immigration," Perry said in Tiffin and the other towns.
Most of his stump speech, which ranges between nine and 15 minutes, is devoted to bashing federal spending, regulations and taxation. These topics play well with Republican activists. Perry, generally seen as a better one-on-one campaigner than Romney, encouraged voters to tune out the TV chatter.
"Pundits don't choose presidents, Iowans do," he said at almost every event. Those voters, he said in Tiffin, "are not looking for the most polished candidates. They're looking for the most principled candidates."
In the televised debates Tuesday and next week, Perry's supporters say they hope he adds a bit more polish to his claim that he's the most principled candidate, and the one best suited to defeat Obama in November 2012.