When Rick Perry arrived at the Electric Ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa, on Sunday night, he was greeted like a soon-to-be conquering hero. The Texas governor and newly minted Republican presidential candidate was immediately mobbed—first by the press, and then by a crowd of well-wishers, all eager to meet the GOP's new savior, the man who can turn back the red tide of socialism next November and return the United States to its constitutional, Judeo-Christian roots. If nothing else, he's got a firm handshake. A very, very firm handshake.
It was day two of the Perry campaign—he formally kicked things off with a speech in South Carolina on Saturday—but the Waterloo visit was his first stop in Iowa, and, more to the point, his first stop in the city Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has made the centerpiece of her own presidential campaign. With Bachmann's victory at the Ames Straw Poll still fresh, the two front-runners for Iowa's first-in-the-nation 2012 primary shared the stage at a county GOP fundraising event and offered a glimpse of what the next four months (if not longer) might look like.
Perry's pitch depends heavily on driving a cultural wedge between himself and the current president. In fairness, there's a pretty wide gulf between the two. Perry talks up his hometown of Paint Creek, Texas, a pinprick of a town with "no zip code" where he met his wife at a piano recital when he was 8, earned a gold star in 4-H, and became an Eagle Scout. He segues from there to his career as an Air Force transport pilot, which, he says, taught him that America truly was God's exceptional nation. "I realized not everyone values life the way we do," he says.
Perry is from Paint Creek, and he is everything else he describes, too, but the larger point—the one Black Hawk County Republicans were supposed to hear—is that Perry has the kind of upbringing conservatives have never forgiven Barack Obama for not having. As Mike Huckabee put it, most Americans grew up with Boy Scouts and Rotary clubs, not madrasas (ignoring that Obama was, in fact, a Boy Scout). Perry went abroad to discover how much he loved America; Obama went abroad to discover his Mau Mau roots.
In his address in Waterloo, Perry identified the exact age—27—at which he fully understood the greatness of America, and then he brought things to the present day, jettisoning any pretenses of subtlety.
"One of your Iowans will be placed in God's green earth this Friday—one of these young Navy SEALs who lost his life in Afghanistan," he said. Then he put the loss in context: "One of the reasons—one of the powerful reasons I'm running for president is to ensure that every young man that puts on the uniform for this country respects entirely the president of the United States." (Read my colleague Adam Weinstein on the full meaning of this quote.)
Throughout all of this, as Perry discussed the urgent need for deregulation and lawsuit reform, he mixed his Texas folksiness (a humble swagger, if there is such a thing) with the controlling style of an executive. At various points in his remarks, he directed his statements at "Senator"—as in Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the other high-profile dinner guest—as if he were already a part of the Washington discourse he says he disdains.
"The idea, and you tell me whether this true or not, but one of my fellas told me if you drive a tractor from one side of the road to another, you're gonna have to have a commercial driver's license—I mean get out of here!" he said. He checked with Grassley to hear if that was the case and was relieved to find out that it wasn't. But the point stands.
When taken with his continued insistence that, for the last two years, he wasn't interested in going to Washington, Perry is framing his entrance as that of a modern-day Cincinnatus, a reluctant old soldier who put down his Ruger .380 with laser sights and hollow-point bullets and left behind the parched scrubland of Paint Creek to make things right.
"I hope nobody took that as being angry, because I have heard people tell me, you know, you tea party folks are angry. We're not angry; we're indignant," Perry said, to hollers from the audience. "We're indignant at the arrogance and the audacity that this administration is showing about the values that are important to the people of America." Perry's line of attack is cutting, but it is not new. He's simply adopting the tack that's been used by some of Obama's previous opponents—Perry, to use John McCain's line, is "the American president Americans have been waiting for."
Update: Here's Perry talkin' about why he's he's indignant:
There's a storyMichele Bachmann likes to tell when she speaks to religious audiences. It arrives about three-quarters through her stump speech, after the warning to opponents that she is "one tough cookie" and the crowd-pleasing pledge to make Barack Obama a—say it together—"One. Term. President."
As Bachmann tells it, America's national sovereignty is slipping away, and the sanctity of the family is being overrun by an encroaching nanny state. But we can find hope in the story of the Israelites, who, after drifting from their faith and coming under siege in their own land, shunned their false idolatry and pushed back the invaders with God's help: "The men of Issachar understood the times that they lived in, and they knew what to do," she says, referring to one of the 12 tribes of Israel. "They had the courage to carry it out." Although Bachmann doesn't note this, it's the only episode in the Bible in which men are led into battle by a woman, Deborah.
This is Michele Bachmann's message, in its biblical essence: America will be restored to its founding glory by a righteous few, and it's going to take a fight. "It is my opinion that God has not given up on the United States of America," she says, the crowd beginning to feel it, "and we shouldn't either."
Since her election to Congress in 2006, Bachmann has earned a reputation as one of the lower chamber's biggest bomb throwers. She has accused the president of harboring "anti-American" views, warned that census data could be used to round up dissenters into internment camps, and declared that the Treasury Department is quietly planning on replacing the dollar with a global currency. To her critics, Bachmann is flat-out crazy, a purveyor of, as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) put it, "psycho talk."
Tim Pawlenty, the former Republican governor of Minnesota, announced Sunday the end of his presidential candidacy.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty finished a very distant third in the Ames Straw Poll on Saturday. He canceled an appearance on Hannity shortly after that, and now we know why: He told ABC's Jake Tapper on Sunday morning that he's dropping out of the Republican presidential race.
The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza tweets that the lesson here is that presidential candidates should just skip the straw poll entirely if they don't think they can win (obviously, that was a successful strategy for Mitt Romney, who did not drop out this morning). But at some point, whether it's in Ames, or later on at the caucuses, candidates do have to hit the stump and court voters—and Pawlenty was a flop on that front.
Here's Pawlenty's announcement:
I saw the Pawlenty's problems up close on Wednesday when I watched him address a room of (mostly) undecided (mostly) senior citizens in Denison who were still smitten by Herman Cain's appearance two days earlier. The ex-governor sounded better on Friday at the Iowa State Fair when he was joined by his wife, Mary, but even then he drew maybe half as many folks as Michele Bachmann. Iowa voters followed the same logic John McCain did when he passed over T-Paw for the vice presidential slot in 2008: He's a safe bet and could "get it done" (to borrow a line from his stump speech), but you only get one vote, so why waste it? Bachmann captures today's conservative id in a way that Pawlenty never could, no matter how hard he tried.
Tim Pawlenty will be fine, though—he's finally free to grow another mullet. The real tragedy here has more to do with what Pawlenty did to position himself as a presidential candidate. Once he set his sights on the next level, he became a different kind of governor—doing a 180 on climate change and leaving a famed Arctic explorer out in the cold; denying gay couples hospital visitation rights; promising his support for an anti-bullying bill and then vetoing it. It's always tough to identify what politicians do for principle and what they do for their future prospects, but to the extent that ambition changed Pawlenty's politics, it was for the worse.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) won the Ames straw poll on Saturday, sending a message to other GOP presidential contenders that she is a serious threat.
So it begins. Two months after kicking off her presidential campaign in her reclaimed Iowa hometown, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) scored a resounding victory in the Ames Straw Poll, a non-binding event that doubles as a fundraiser for the Iowa Republican Party. Texas Congressman Ron Paul finished just 150 votes back in second place (out of nearly 17,000 cast), but it was Bachmann's drubbing of her fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty that immediately stands out—and raises questions about whether there's still room in the race for the formerly mulleted, former governor of Minnesota.
While today's event is technically meaningless—the votes won't count until the caucuses are held in December—it was the first serious test of the candidates' appeal and manpower. You could think of Ames as a sort of highly concentrated get-out-the-vote contest: The Bachmann and Pawlenty campaigns both bused in supporters from as far away as Davenport on the Illinois border and covered the $30/per ticket fee for supporters to cast their votes. Pawlenty spent the past week drumming up support across the state, but Bachmann's organizational dominance was obvious from the minute I parked my car. She employed a fleet of golf carts to shuttle elderly attendees to-and-from the parking lot and the voting booths, and an army of volunteers focused intently on sheparding supporters toward the polls.
Registering for the event was a prerequisite for entering Bachmann's cavernous (if somewhat pungent-smelling) tent, where she entertained voters with live Christian rock and a special performance from country music star Randy Travis (at that point, the crowd spilled well out of the tent and brought in dozens of supporters of other candidates). Bachmann's win also owes something to the underlying qualities that go unmentioned in her speech but which have made her a hit among Iowa conservatives. As I noted earlier, Wallbuilders co-founder Rick Green, a Christian Reconstructionist who believes Christians have an obligation to take over government, spoke on Bachmann's stage in the morning and revved up the crowd with a message that offered the audience a glimpse of the candidate's roots as a proponent of Biblical Constitutionalism. Christian values: good; Moral relativism: Bad.
The dreadlocked Bachmann supporter in the "Jesus is my Rock" t-shirt might beg to difer, but in Iowa, Bachmann demonstrated that, at least in this truncated version of the GOP field, she is a rock star. Bachmann commanded a crowd twice as large as anyone else's when she showed up at the Iowa State Fair to speak from the Des Moines Register "soapbox," and she was the only one who had a state police escort. At her speech in Ames, she whipped the crowd into a frenzy (Only Paul, who was an anti-government crusader before it was cool, could come anywhere close). This, from Sandra Beak of Illinois, was a typical reaction from the congresswoman's supporters: "I saw Michele Bachmann last night—Oh my gosh! That woman is energetic! She never stops! It's amazing!"
Those are four things no one has ever said about Tim Pawlenty. Leading up to the poll, Pawlenty continued to do all the little things that candidates are supposed to do—serving up the best barbecue and handing out Dairy Queen blizzards; fine-tuning his stump speech over the course of the week into one that, at least on paper, finally seemed to work; showing up on time and staying on message—but the enthusiasm just wasn't there.
On the day that Texas Gov. Rick Perry finally stepped into the ring, the Ames results carry with them a serious disclaimer: We're about to hit restart on the whole race. Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner from day one, chose to spend the day in New Hampshire and skip the straw poll entirely. The results don't mean everything, but they weren't meaningless either. If nothing else, consider this: two-thirds of Ames voters chose candidates—Paul and Bachmann—who were decidedly in the fringe of the party in 2008. This is your new GOP.
Update: Here's the final tally. Out of 16,892 votes:
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is running for president.
It's tough to get inside Michele Bachmann's tent at the Ames Straw Poll. Just a few yards away from Herman Cain's headquarters, where you can walk right up and grab a slice of Godfather's Pizza, the line stretches well out the door—and it's moving especially slowly because only Bachmann supporters are allowed in. It's also where I found Rick Green talking about "moral relativism."
Green, dressed in blue jeans, glasses, and an American-flag polo shirt, is the co-founder of Wallbuilders, the Texas-based organization that's "dedicated to presenting America's forgotten history and heroes, with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation." The name is a reference to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the Book of Nehemiah. If you know the organization at all, though, you know it as the home of David Barton, whose revisionist history about the faith of the Founders has made him a certified celebrity on the Right. (Mike Huckabee says Barton's he's one of the most important authors in America.) In their literature and on their radio show, they construct a clear narrative: America is a fundamentally Christian nation, divinely inspired.
That's the gospel Green is preaching today in the Bachmann tent. "We're not just gonna say, 'oooh everybody's equal and moral relativism for all!," he tells the crowd, cowbells ringing. Instead, we need to take a stand, and there is no one better to do that than Michele Bachmann: "She's got a backbone that'll make a freight train take a back road."
Green launches into a short allegory about the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and then, with members of the audience holding up their hands in prayer, revival-style, returns back to the situation at hand: "This is the hour, my friends, that you get to stand guard at the watchtower of freedom."
Darwin Hofmeister of Ackley, Iowa is standing just a few dozen feet away from the stage. He was a Tim Pawlenty supporter before he switched to Bachmann. "Are you familiar with the Family Leader?" Hofmeister asks me, referring to Iowa’s leading social conservative group. Last month the Family Leader unveiled a pledge that candidates would be required to sign to be eligible for the group's endorsement—in included, among other things, a vow to oppose gay marriage, fight pornography, and ban Islamic Sharia law (it also suggested that black families were more stable under slavery). "Her and Rick Santorum were the only ones that signed the pledge. And to me that made all the difference"
"I think that's probably one of the most important issues," Hofmeister tells me. "All you have to do is look at the riots in London and state fairs and you'll see a bunch of kids with no values." So does he agree with Green's statement that moral relativism is ruining America? "Definitely."