Perry gets back to basics in Iowa

It’s not exactly a secret that Rick Perry’s presidential campaign had fallen on hard times, despite being the clear frontrunner not too long ago. The conventional wisdom would have us believe it was the Texas governor’s poor debate performances that took the wind from his sails, but a closer look suggests it was issues — most notably immigration and HPV — and not incoherence that dragged him down.

With this in mind, if Perry is going to get back on track, he’ll have to shift the campaign focus back to his strengths. Speaking to about 1,000 activists at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition dinner last night, the governor was in his comfort zone.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas sought to win over social conservative voters in Iowa on Saturday night as he drew a distinction between his opposition to abortion with the views of his leading Republican rivals and declared, “Being pro-life is not a matter of campaign convenience; it is a core conviction.”

At a forum for Republican presidential hopefuls, Mr. Perry urged party activists to study the abortion positions of his opponents. He offered veiled criticism of Herman Cain, who told an interviewer last week that he was against abortion, but that the decision to have the procedure was a personal one.

“It is a liberal canard to say I am personally pro-life, but government should stay out of that decision,” Mr. Perry said, drawing enthusiastic applause from a crowd of social conservative voters. “If that is your view, you are not pro-life, you are pro-having your cake and eating it too.”

Perry may have a lot of faults as a candidate, but when it comes to restricting America women’s reproductive rights, the Texas governor knows how to connect with his party’s right-wing base.

This, oddly enough, is evidence of campaign progress for him. A few weeks ago, Perry appeared at the Values Voter Summit in DC, and was expected to connect easily with the religious right audience. Instead, the governor delivered a routine stump speech and underwhelmed attendees. Last night, Perry remembered to cater his message to his audience.

It helps, of course, that he’s been given an opening. Herman Cain, by some measures the frontrunner-for-now in Iowa, accidentally came out as pro-choice this week (last night, he assured the Iowa audience he wants a policy of “no abortions, no exceptions”). Mitt Romney, who assumed he has no shot with these voters anyway, didn’t bother to show up at all last night, instead going back to New Hampshire.

Which left Perry among the top-tier candidates to say things like, “When it comes to faith, it is the core of who I am. It is an essential act as much as breathing is an essential act. I found the true source of hope and change, and that is a loving God who changes hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.” It was, to be sure, what the audience wanted to hear.

In the bigger picture, it’s still hard to imagine how Perry can complete a successful comeback and win the Republican nomination, but it’s probably a little too early to completely write off the candidate we saw last night. Perry has a lot of money in the bank; campaign advertisements haven’t even started running yet; and at least in Iowa, the Texas governor is the only consistent opponent of abortion rights in the GOP’s top tier — a detail he’ll apparently be pushing in Iowa quite a bit.