NEW YORK — Rick Perry isn't going down without a fight.
With a massive new television ad campaign targeting social conservatives, the Republican presidential hopeful signaled Wednesday he intends to try to resuscitate his faltering candidacy in Iowa, which holds kickoff caucuses in less than four weeks. It's a tall order for Perry, who entered the race to great fanfare in August only to see his popularity plummet throughout the fall.
Perry's campaign has launched a $1.2 million ad buy in Iowa leading up to the January 3 contest. The campaign plans to spend more than $650,000 this week alone on a commercial showcasing the Texas governor's Christian faith and attacking President Barack Obama for waging a "war on religion."
Perry's aim is twofold. He's reminding evangelical Christian voters, who typically make up a sizable share of the state's GOP caucus-goers, that he is one of them. He's also drawing a contrast with rival Mitt Romney, whose Mormon faith gives many evangelical voters pause, and with Newt Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism but has been divorced twice and has acknowledged infidelity in his first two marriages.
Perry is getting help from Make Us Great Again, a super PAC supporting his candidacy. The group is running ads depicting Perry as an outsider who will rescue the country from Washington "elites."
All told, it's a massive show of force for Perry in a contest that so far hasn't seen much of an ad war.
Romney, the best-funded of the GOP field, has only recently gone up with ads in Iowa after running a modest TV campaign in New Hampshire, which hosts the leadoff primary January 10. Gingrich began running ads in Iowa just this week.
The $2 million that Perry's campaign has already spent on ads in Iowa hasn't done much to move him out of the bottom tier of candidates. A new TIME/CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday found Perry in fourth place with just 9 percent support among likely caucus-goers, trailing Gingrich, Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Until now, Perry had stressed his state's record in job creation. His pivot to social issues — including a sharp critique on gay rights — shows he is looking to his party's most conservative base to find a second wind just as voters are tuning in.
"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," Perry says in his new TV ad.
Perry also released a statement criticizing the Obama administration for announcing a plan to tie foreign aid decisions in part to a country's treatment of its gay and lesbians.
"Investing tax dollars promoting a lifestyle many Americas of faith find so deeply objectionable is wrong," Perry says.
Perry has several campaign events scheduled Sunday in Iowa after a nationally televised debate Saturday evening in Des Moines. Perry's weak performance in several debates has been a major factor in his loss of support.
With his full-throated appeal to social conservatives, Perry is hoping to follow the path of Mike Huckabee, who in 2008 trounced Romney for an upset win in thanks largely to the former Arkansas governor's popularity among religious conservatives.
It's not a perfect model: Huckabee left Iowa that year with his campaign nearly broke and was never able to convert his victory into a sustainable effort across multiple states. Advisers to Perry insist he won't face that fate and have devised a strategy in which he will largely bypass New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, which hosts its primary January 21.
"He's a competitor. The guy's not used to losing. To be frank, he does better when he's in third or fourth place than when he's ahead," said Katon Dawson, who is running Perry's South Carolina campaign operation. Perry is scheduled to make several campaign stops in the state Thursday, including an event with veterans and a private meeting with 450 pastors.
Dawson, a former South Carolina Republican Party chairman, said the heavy ad blitz and sharper focus on Christian conservatives shouldn't be construed as a sign of panic by the Perry team.
"What you're seeing is the real Rick Perry," Dawson said. "The goal is to show voters they have a distinct choice."
Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Thomas Beaumont in Iowa contributed to this report.
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