DES MOINES, Iowa — Months behind other GOP candidates, Rick Perry has something most of them don't: Buzz. The Texas governor will enter the race Saturday with splashy appearances in South Carolina and New Hampshire.
At the same time, he is putting together what looks a lot like a traditional presidential campaign. The path he hopes will lead to the Republican nomination starts here, in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa, with a message of jobs and values as he tries to set himself apart from GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
The Texan's team is working to expand what it says is already a robust fundraising network and to hire veteran campaign operatives in early primary states. The campaign, as many before it, aims to march through early states, court a broad coalition of conservatives and stress an economic message backed by the candidate's home-state job growth.
"We cannot and must not endure four more years of rising unemployment, rising taxes, rising debt and rising energy dependence on nations that intend us harm," Perry is to say Saturday in Charleston, S.C., according to remarks prepared for delivery.
Still, his hurdles on the way to the GOP nomination are high, given that Perry is later to the game than his rivals, some of whom have been campaigning and fundraising for months.
"We have a consensus that we can do it — and no one's 100 percent convinced it's going to work," Perry's longtime strategist Dave Carney told The Associated Press.
Perry is working quickly to assemble a network of operatives nationally and in key early-voting states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He's attracting staff from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's imploded campaign as well as the aborted presidential bid of Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.
Rob Johnson, who left Perry's office early this year to be Gingrich's campaign manager, is expected to be central to the Texan's presidential campaign and was headed to South Carolina on Friday.
And Perry's even started siphoning staff from current candidates. GOP fundraiser Gary Slayton in New Hampshire shifted from supporting former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to Perry this week, saying of the Texan, "He clearly sees the peril facing our beloved nation and has decided to answer the call."
Perry is courting establishment Republicans, economic conservatives and business leaders as he tries to knit together a coalition that spans the GOP spectrum. His team believes that his support among social conservatives already is strong and that he helped himself last week by hosting a national prayer rally. It drew 30,000 people to a Houston arena and the attention of more than 1,000 churches nationwide.
His inaugural campaign trip as a full-fledged candidate provides a window into his strategy for winning the nomination.
It starts Sunday with a three-day trip to Iowa, where he will appear at iconic state venues, including the Iowa State Fair and Iowa City's Hamburg Inn, where the walls are covered with photographs of past presidential candidates.
He'll share the spotlight at one stop — Waterloo — with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who changed her schedule after it was announced that Perry would attend a county GOP fundraiser in the city, her birthplace.
While in Iowa, Perry also plans to hold several meetings with elected officials, as well as headline a business round-table in Dubuque.
He'll travel to New Hampshire on Wednesday, and is scheduled to headline the traditional Politics and Eggs breakfast in Bedford Village near Manchester. Stops in six other cities also are planned.
From there, he heads back to South Carolina, a conservative state where Perry's evangelical background, punctuated last week with the day of prayer he headlined in Houston, can serve him well. He'll spend his time meeting with potential supporters and financial backers, including Barry Wynn, who met with Perry in Austin three weeks ago to start building a national finance operation.
"He has plenty of running room and available staff in South Carolina and will be popular," said Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist in Charleston who is unaffiliated with a 2012 campaign.
Perry is looking to be the answer for the GOP establishment, many of whose members are uninspired by Romney, who is leading the field as a business conservative in his second bid for the nomination.
Henry Barbour, a longtime Haley Barbour aide who is helping Perry get started, said the Texan's appeal among business and establishment Republicans and his fundraising ability fill a void in the campaign.
"And he's authentic," Barbour said. "That's a natural contrast he has with Gov. Romney and President Obama."
While Perry has never run a national campaign, his ties to the Republican Governors Association, which he chairs and has served as finance chairman, give him an entry with national GOP donors.
For now, he is working to make a swift and strong financial showing by drawing on his state's large pool of Republican donors to fuel his campaign launch. The Texas fundraising base contrasts with smaller-state local pools that Minnesota's Pawlenty can draw from, although Romney, who ran for the nomination in 2008, already has a national fundraising network.
Longtime donors to Perry from Texas, including hundreds who have donated more than $100,000 to his three winning campaigns for governor, are sending out emails. And several Texas fundraising events are in the works.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in New Hampshire, Beth Fouhy in South Carolina and April Castro and Chris Tomlinson in Texas contributed to this report.