WASHINGTON — Rick Perry is beefing up his team with presidential campaign veterans, readying TV ads in Iowa and making a policy pitch to conservatives by backing the flat tax in an aggressive effort to revive his struggling campaign.
With two months before the Iowa caucuses, a half-dozen candidates are vying to become the conservative alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is well-known and has the money and organization to compete across the map. Perry is the only one with the money — and now the talent — to take him on.
But Perry's been struggling for the past two months. He's endured campaign trail stumbles, bad debate performances and seen his national poll numbers drop as a result. His new team, beefed up policy platform and TV ads represent a new show of force and a push for the right-wing vote. The shift is designed to convince skeptical donors and supporters that Perry's resetting the campaign and can be the alternative to Romney they seek — and eventually the nominee.
Perry's team doesn't have much time to introduce their candidate to voters. Just two months remain until the Iowa caucuses, where Perry will have to make a strong showing if he's going to go on to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida against Romney. The longer he jostles with Rep. Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to win over social and tea party conservatives, the more it looks as though Romney will capture the Republican nomination.
To prevent that, Perry is bringing in Tony Fabrizio, a veteran who was chief strategist for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, to help top Perry strategist David Carney. Also joining the team are strategist Nelson Warfield, consultant Curt Anderson and media guru Jim Innocenzi.
Former President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, has landed a top strategic role.
The new hires reflect that the Texas-based staff underestimated just how tough the national campaign would be — and just how much that's hurt Perry. After an August announcement that shot Perry to the top of national polls, he's recently slid into the teens in national surveys — and at just 10 percent in an NBC News/Marist poll in critical Iowa.
Republicans privately say that adding the new staff, particularly Allbaugh and Fabrizio, will give the Perry campaign credibility with the Republican establishment outside Texas and help convince donors that Perry does have a plausible or even likely path to the GOP nomination.
"These are guys who are serious players," said Phil Musser, a GOP strategist who advised former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's short-lived presidential campaign.
The new team will have a particular focus on the Florida primary, where money and TV ads matter most. As he's slipped in Iowa, Perry's team has increasingly turned to Florida as the make-or-break state for the Texas governor's campaign, Republicans say. Fabrizio, Anderson and Warfield have a record of success there: They helped guide Florida Gov. Rick Scott through a nasty and expensive Republican primary and then through the general election. Scott won by successfully appealing to tea party and conservatives in the state, a path Perry hopes to tread.
First, though, Perry has to compete in Iowa, where he plans the first TV ad of the presidential cycle this week. The moderate, week-long buy will run in Sioux City, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, the state's three key media markets, and on state cable stations. While the content of the ad wasn't immediately clear, Perry's still largely unknown — and likely to focus on introducing himself to voters with positive ads touting his background as governor and service in the Air Force.
Perry's recent appearances in the state suggest he's also ready to hit others from the right. Right now, his strongest challenge is coming from Cain, the former Godfather's Pizza chief executive who has surged in polls in recent weeks. At an Iowa dinner with social conservatives over the weekend, Perry attacked Cain's record on abortion after Cain told CNN that abortion "ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make."
"It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life but government should stay out of that decision," Perry said in his speech there.
In recent days Perry's also wandered into questions about whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States — a debunked theory that's still discussed among some elements of the conservative base. "I don't have a definitive answer," Perry told Parade magazine when he was pressed about where the president was born.
Perry's also tacking to the right on taxes. While Romney's plan would make minor changes to the tax code and Cain's 9-9-9 plan would include a national sales tax, Perry is set to unveil a flat income tax plan in South Carolina on Tuesday. The campaign hasn't yet released details, but has said that businessman and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes is a key adviser for the plan.
"People's mouths will water" when they see the plan, Forbes said Friday.
It's a policy idea that's often popular in the beginning but difficult to defend over a long campaign. Critics across the political spectrum complain that the current tax code is too complex and riddled with loopholes that allow specific groups to pay less. Many conservatives argue a flat tax would be simpler and fairer because everyone would be taxed at the same rate.
But advocates also typically call for eliminating some or all of the existing tax deductions, such as those allowed for mortgage interest payments, gifts to charity and some medical costs. Many of those are popular and have broad support from voters.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.