WALCOTT, Iowa-Voters wanting a chance to shake presidential candidate Rick Perry's hand had only to wait. The Texas governor posed for photos, signed autographs, and slapped backs for more than 15 minutes after his remarks at this little town known for its big truck stop along Interstate 80.
"I've never seen a candidate take so much time to be personable," said Kathi Kelly of Davenport. In Iowa, where the politicking is famously one on one, that's saying something. Just four days into its bid for the White House, the Perry campaign is conscientiously building time into every stop so the candidate can work the room. Kelly, who was leaning toward supporting Rep. Michele Bachmann, was impressed: "I won't be disappointed if he's the nominee."
An earlier stop at a roofing company in Cedar Rapids showcased how Perry's Texas folksiness is matching up well with Iowa audiences. With a genial "you bet" or a "sure," he comfortably agreed to snapshot after snapshot with workers. The cell phone cameras were out in force as Perry tossed an arm around shoulder after shoulder, while one woman exclaimed what great Facebook profile pictures they would soon be.
"Come on, brother," he encouraged anyone hanging back. "Come on, get in here." Then came the audible backslap. "Thank you, boys," and "appreciate you guys." When Perry finally turned to go, the workers applauded enthusiastically, and someone shouted, "Go get 'em, governor!"
After decades of first-in-the-nation status, Iowans are used to getting plenty of face time with the candidates. Perry already has the routine down pat. "They'll just get right up close to you, and ask you whatever's on their minds," he said.
For his campaign staffers standing back and watching, the GOP hopeful's affable ways are nothing new. Perry spent nearly four hours at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Monday, munching a corn dog, rallying a crowd from the Des Moines Register's "Soapbox," and talking extensively on the air with WHO radio's longtime conservative host Jan Mickelson.
Perry's "Get America Working" bus rolled across eastern Iowa Tuesday, stopping in Dubuque, just 12 miles from President Obama's Peosta, Iowa, stop. Both were talking jobs. Obama blasted Congress, but Perry jabbed at Obama, saying nearly one-in-six Americans are unemployed or underemployed. "We're told we're in a recovery now," he said, pausing to let the crowd respond with disbelief. "That's not a recovery, Mr. President. That's an economic disaster."
Rick Lynch, who has been rooting for Bachmann so far, waited outside Perry's stop in Dubuque to hear more about Perry's job-creating record in Texas. He said he was tired of hearing Obama talk about inheriting a bad economy: "It's not Bush's problem, it's his."
That willingness to hear out a new contender for the Republican nomination was reflected in a national Rasmussen poll released the same day. It has Perry surging to the front ahead of Mitt Romney and Bachmann. "I think he's one of the few who could beat Obama," said Nick Metcalf of Bettendorf.
Sitting down with business leaders in Dubuque, Perry muted his stump-speech style but hammered the same growth themes: "We're being over-taxed, over-regulated, and over-litigated. Call a timeout. We know what needs to happen."
Largely missing so far from his stump speech are the social conservative issues that rivals Rick Santorum and Bachmann commonly include before Iowa audiences. The caucus night enthusiasm of evangelicals has boosted past campaigns, most recently fueling Mike Huckabee's win in 2008. Perry, who led his state in a recent day of prayer event attended by 30,000 people, is starting his campaign on a foundation of jobs and smaller government, including a promise to travel the country as president to push for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.
Kevin Jones, a values voter who brought his family to Walcott, left more enthusiastic about the Perry candidacy he already planned to support. Debbie Laird liked what she heard but will remain loyal to her early choice, businessman Herman Cain.
Meanwhile, Perry is using a speech-ending line that brought cheers from his Walcott listeners: "I will go to Washington, D.C., and work every day to make it as inconsequential in your life as I can."