Eric Gay, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, center, walks with Pat Christensen, left, as he made a campaign stop at Bayliss Park Hall, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — Every now and then, Rick Perry seems to stop campaigning for president. That's when he talks about the men and women who have served in uniform — including himself.

"We've got a lot of heroes: young men and women that we've watched from afar, sometimes up close and personal," the Texas governor said slowly during an otherwise fiery campaign speech to launch a thousand-mile bus tour here Wednesday. "Sometimes, it was your friends and family."

Perry's campaign is looking for a second wind with mere weeks to go until Iowa starts the Republican nominating process with its Jan. 3 caucuses. He is lagging in the polls and is working hard to recapture the fervor of his August entry into the race.

A refocused campaign speech plays up the uniform. Heading into Thursday's debate in Sioux City, look for Perry to highlight his four years flying C-130s in the Air Force.

On Wednesday, Perry reminded Iowans of his military record.

"Growing up in Paint Creek, Texas, I learned some values — just like those of you that grew up in small towns in Iowa — hard work, faith, family were really important," he said. "Serving your community, serving your state, serving your country. I'll never be able to give back to this country what it has given to me. Part of my attempt to do that was serving in the United States Air Force."

The crowd interrupted with applause.

"My purpose in life has never been to be the president of the United States," Perry said. "My purpose in life has been to serve my country."

From the beginning, Perry hoped military issues would help him. During a September speech at Liberty University, the nation's largest evangelical school, he encouraged students to honor fallen military members by living a moral life.

"A great many of those who perished were approximately your age. Young men and women whose entire future was in front of them. They sacrificed their dreams to preserve yours," Perry said. "Because of what they gave, I simply ask you to make the most of the freedom that they sacrificed."

During the first days of his campaign, he all but cried when talking about a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan "so a guy like me can stand up on a soapbox at the Iowa State Fair and talk freely about freedom and liberty and America and that we are an exceptional country and we're going to stay an exceptional country."

Perry's campaign is looking to tap into the pool of veterans — reliable, older voters who helped Sen. John McCain win the nomination in 2008 — and families of military members.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas is the only other military veteran seeking the presidential nomination. Paul was a flight surgeon in the Air Force and Air Force National Guard in the 1960s; Perry served in the 1970s.

If the GOP nominates anyone but Perry or Paul, it will be the first presidential campaign in 68 years to feature two candidates with no military record. President Barack Obama did not serve in uniform — a fact Perry once sought to exploit.

"The president had the opportunity to serve his country I'm sure, at some time, and he made the decision that that wasn't what he wanted to do," Perry told a Cedar Rapids crowd back in August.