AMES, Iowa -- Two weeks ago, the new-ish fiscal conservative 527 Strong America Now asked Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, to speak at their GOP straw poll booth. Strong America Now is a well-polished campaign for businessman Mike George's goal of getting states and, eventually, the federal government to implement Lean Six Sigma business strategies as they reform and cut government. Perry was the first governor to sign on. But Perry took a pass on the speech. In short order, the group figured out why: He would be announcing a presidential bid in South Carolina today.
I watched Perry's speech from the Strong America Now tent. Americans for Perry (a non-affiliated group) had passed out fliers telling people to watch the speech live in there, so I walked past several tables of free candy and took a seat in front of one of two 40-inch flatscreen TVs, tuned to a somewhat grainy Fox News feed. I sat next to Robert and Jamie Lawson, both sporting "Americans for Perry" shirts they'd picked up from the group's hotel suite.
"I hadn't really paid attention to him until that day of prayer," she said. "I heard about that the night before it happened, and then I went online and started reading about his record. And I was just sold. He's a man of integrity." She and her husband came to the event just to vote for him. "I wish he was up there!" she said, pointing to the empty Strong America Now stage that was framed by the TVs.
We settled in and saw Perry take the stage. Having just run a day of prayer, he was able to eschew talk of God. Even when he opened with a tribute to the Navy SEALs killed this week in Afghanistan, he asked for a "moment," not a prayer. From there he stuck to economics, presenting Texas as a land of milk and honey that would have more of both if not for the federal government.
"Since June 2009, 40 percent of the new jobs in this country were created in Texas," he said. "We've got only 10 percent of the population, but 40 percent of the new jobs." Compare that to Washington. "One sixth of Americans can't find a good full-time job. That's not recovery! That's economic catastrophe!"
His prescription for what ails us was one part Tom Joad rhetoric about joblessness, one part ALEC-flavored ideology. "We think it's a disgrace that almost half of Americans don't pay federal income taxes," he said. He said that right after boasting that Texas had balanced its budget "without raising taxes." He cited Texas's "loser pays" tort reform legislation as something the rest of the nation should copy, an idea that plays well, but hasn't been examined closely at the presidential level in some time.
But it was a rousing speech, even through a grainy feed. "America's not broken," said Perry. "Washington, D.C. is broken!" And "I want to make Washington, D.C. as inconsequential as I can!" Great applause lines that play better from a governor than they play from the current aspirant to Tea Party votes.
The room wasn't all too full, but there's an indeliable impression here that Perry's move is stepping on Iowa's big moment. (There were fewer than 1,000 attendees at the Red State Gathering he talked to, and by contrast, Michele Bachmann has schlepped 4,000 straw poll tickets so far.) Walking through the fair, Mike Huckabee repeated his criticism of Perry's move while warming up to him as a candidtae.
"I think he should have been here today," he told me. "This is where the political universe is today. That said: He's a friend. I think he's done a fine job as a governor, and the fact that he's been a governor says he's done something that Barack Obama has never done. Whatever tactical issues I may have with his decision to announce today, in some place other than Iowa -- all that said, I want to see a Republican in the White House."