Less Hat, More Cattle

After his attack on Ben Bernanke, Rick Perry tries to temper his swagger.

Rick Perry at the Iowa State Fair on Monday

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa—At the end of his third day as a presidential candidate, Rick Perry discussed his novel ideas about monetary policy. Asked about the Federal Reserve, he suggested if Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke ever visited Texas, he could get strung up. “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,”he told a crowd at a backyard event Monday evening. “Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion.”

Bernanke wasn’t his only target of the day. Perry also took shots at President Obama’s military record and patriotism, and Mitt Romney’s jobs record (though he also blew him kisses and told a reporter to “give him my love“). In an age of packaged events and thinly ladled news, the Perry show was a refreshing and unpredictable carnival.

Yet it’s unlikely to continue for much longer. On Tuesday morning Perry’s communications director, Ray Sullivan, tried to take the edges off the governor’s remarks from the previous day. “The governor was passionate and energized by a full day at the Iowa state fair and public events and interacting with the people of Iowa,” he said. Perry and the American people, he added, are simply frustrated with Washington politics, and that irritation was what fueled his remarks.

Perry has already shown he is a good retail politician. He has also shown that he is an effective advocate for the Tea Party activists. His task now is to show he has discipline. It’s one of the traps his opponents have set for him. He may bring energy to the race—but so does a live wire. Discipline is also important to any campaign that wants to stay focused on one message for more than one news cycle. That’s what candidates learn from having run before. Romney has learned this. He has been focused, not “swinging at every pitch,” as a campaign aide once put it (which includes sidestepping questions about Perry and staying focused on attacking Obama).

By Tuesday morning, Perry was far more subdued. Dressed in a coat and tie and speaking at local roofing company, he dropped the preacherlike cadence and delivered his remarks on the economy in a softer tone. It was quite a change from the day before at the state fair, where Perry put on quite a show shaking hands, high-fiving kids, and pulling various onlookers into a close embrace. It was clear that Perry was energized by all the contact.

Of course, not everyone got it. “Governor Pawlenty!” yelled one woman. Another bystander asked: “I want to ask him how he’s going to be different than George Bush.” And there was the woman who gave Perry the Perry treatment, putting him in a clutch. Afterward I talked to her. “I called him ‘Mr. Everything,’ ” she said, beaming and explaining how his Tea Party support and executive experience meant he was the complete package. The woman, who declined to give her name, was another supporter of Rep. Michele Bachmann who has switched to Perry. (I’ve met several.) She hadn’t completely given up her passion for Bachmann, however. Before she left Perry she pressed some Bachmann campaign literature in his hand and asked that he consider her as his running mate.

Perry’s main message is about the economy. He promises “to get America working again.” His prescription is simple: Get government out of the way and allow American self-reliance to take over. “That’s what we do,” he says, talking about how the American people are hard-wired to come back from adversity. If the theme sounds familiar, it may be because it’s almost exactly the same as the one President Obama sounded at the end of his State of the Union address in January, when he reminded Americans that “We do big things.”

Which is not to say Perry agrees with Obama. Far from it: “I think you want a president who is passionate about America … who is in love with America,” he said to the crowd at the fair. Asked later if he thought Obama loved his country, he told the reporter he’d have to ask the president. Perry also talked about Obama’s lack of military service and how his own made him a better potential commander in chief. “Experience matters. Having walked in a person’s shoes, having done what these men and women in the military are doing matters to them,” Perry said. “I don’t want somebody sitting in the front-left seat of the airliner who just got their pilot’s license.”

This is pretty charged language. It’s what makes Perry appealing to conservatives. If he is nominated it will also mean a highly charged general election campaign, possibly including regular eruptions of emotional debates about duty, patriotism, and values.

At his last stop of the day Monday, Perry tried to return his focus to Obama’s economic policies, calling for a six-month moratorium on new federal regulations. Then his attack on Bernanke overshadowed those remarks. The softer tone Tuesday shows that the Perry campaign recognizes the candidate needs to temper his swagger. Whether it can be tempered, or how much, is another question.

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