The Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa, is on the grounds of the National Cattle Congress, right next to the Sunrise Children's Petting Zoo. It's a dimly lit hall, plastered with neon beer signs and old photos of singers like Elvis or Buddy Holly.
The day after Texas governor Rick Perry ended the will-he-won't-he speculation by announcing his candidacy for the Republican nomination in South Carolina, he traveled here to speak at the Blackhawk County Republican Dinner. When he entered the room, Perry ducked to greet each table and pose for photos, despite a throng of reporters surrounding him at all times.
"We're not angry, we're indignant," Perry told the crowd. "We're indignant at the arrogance and the audacity that this administration is showing about the values that are important to the good people of America. ... We're indignant about a president who goes on an American apology tour instead of talking about American exceptionalism." The room swooned for Governor Goodhair.
Straw Poll winner Michele Bachmann followed Perry, and it was clear that the candidates were in completely separate classes. He was at ease talking to voters, and took questions at the end of the speech. Bachmann, on the other hand, only came through the building's front doors to take the stage and left with minimal voter interaction. Perry deftly mingled policy issues with red-meat rhetoric in a style that has so far eluded Bachmann, who is most at ease spouting social conservative platitudes. Perry dug into the economy and job creation, the topics that will likely drive the 2012 election even among the Tea Party base, and was rewarded with loud applause during his speech last night.
Perry is scheduled to spend the beginning of the week traveling in Iowa, starting today with the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. This will smooth over his initial faux pas; some state GOPers thought he stole the spotlight from Saturday's Ames Straw Poll when he announced his candidacy in South Carolina during the middle of the vote. Representative Steve King castigated Perry along with former Governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman for snubbing his home state's Caucuses: "They're diminishing the access to the presidency for the common American" he says. "Unless they've got a better plan, and I don't think so."
Perry may have ruffled a few feathers among the political class in Iowa over the weekend, but voters seemed more forgiving. At Saturday's straw poll vote, Perry finished sixth, with 718 votes despite not being on the ballot -- all his votes were write-ins. He even bested former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a presumed frontrunner, who only had 567 votes. That showing was largely thanks to Americans for Rick Perry, a Super PAC formed before the governor's entrance into the race that tried to get the governor's name on the ballot. These supporters watched Perry's announcement on a TV set up by Strong America Now in a packed tent. The volunteers -- ranging from undergrads bused up from Texas to old George W. Bush supporters from Michigan, though only supporters with valid Iowa IDs were allowed to vote in the straw poll -- were corralled by the group's finance chairman, Nate Crain. He's a Texas Republican with deep ties to the governor. A former chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party, Crain and his wife have donated more than $110,000 to Perry's campaigns over the years. He's already tapped into Perry's network of high dollar donors, getting a $100,000 check from billionaire Harold Simmons.
Perry had spent much of last year and the beginning of 2011 denying any presidential ambition, but as the final field looked weak early in the summer, he had a change of heart. After the straw poll results this weekend, the Republican nomination appears to be a race between Perry, Bachmann, and Romney. But lest we forget the failures of Wesley Clark and Fred Thompson, presidential campaign history is littered with much-heralded candidates whose campaigns sputter out after their late entry. "We realize we've got some time to make up. He's going to campaign hard in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and plans on winning those states," says Ray Sullivan, Chief of Staff at the governor's office who worked as his spokesman at the event.
Perry's got reason to believe he can still compete this late in the game. This network of outside organizations and the freedom of a post-Citizens United campaign finance allow a late-entering candidate new advantage. Americans for Rick Perry will be working with another independent, pro-Perry Super PAC called Make Us Great Again that is headed by a former Perry chief of staff. The latter will likely take the lead on media purchasing, while Americans for Rick Perry continues to operate a grassroots level organization alongside the governor's campaign.
It's groups like these that Perry's strategists hope will make up for any momentum he lost for entering late. With no limits on individual donations for Texas elections, Perry has developed a group of donors who consistently shell out six figure contributions, "I don't think there's going to be any problem for him." Crain says, "to quickly put together the kind of money he needs to be competitive nationally."