Jesus, Take the Wheel

Does Rick Perry’s faith-and-values message give him a chance in Iowa?

Rick Perry in Iowa.
Gov. Rick Perry campaigning for president in Iowa

Photograph by David Weigel.

DENISON, Iowa—Rick Perry’s campaign bus, which will be cutting across Iowa for 10 days, is painted dark shades of black, red, and blue. It has a slogan that can be seen from the lower end of the stratosphere: “Faith, Jobs, and Freedom.” The “faith” part is sort of new. It comes first for a reason.

At the first Wednesday stop, in Council Bluffs, the bus pulls up to the Bayliss Park Hall and parks next to a municipal lamppost decorated with Christmas trimmings. Perry exits the bus with Lt. Dan Moran, a Marine who survived an IED attack in Iraq but sustained third-degree burns. The governor of Texas finds his place in a room of around 85 curious people—a few are from Omaha, a short drive down the road—and gives a 13-minute stump speech. He holds out his arms to “draw the line between Washington and Wall Street.” He brandishes a postcard to show how simple his flat tax would be and a Sharpie to prove how rarin’ and ready he is to start vetoing bills. He doesn’t have a prop for his next point.

“This president’s had a war on our values,” says Perry. “He stopped funding for those Catholic charities simply because they wouldn’t perform abortions. Their values are important to them, but this president said, I’m gonna stop the funding to you. His justice department is trying to impact long-standing law that basically says whether or not a church can hire or fire someone because of their values. I mean, think about that. That’s an assault on values. That’s an assault on religion. And Americans are not going to accept an assault on their values anymore.”

Perry passes the microphone to Moran, who has a scar on the back of his head and discolored skin from the operations that saved him. He points to an American flag. “That flag means something,” says Moran. “Our values—they’re not just words. We live ’em every day.”

Moran says that Rick Perry should be commander-in-chief, because Perry believes that America is exceptional. “I’ll be here,” the Marine says. “Even though I can’t regulate my body temperature much anymore, if I’ve got to knock on every door in the union to tell people how important it is to elect Rick Perry president, then I will.”

There are audible sniffles and chokes in the room. Perry’s video director, Lucas Baiano (the man who made Tim Pawlenty’s mind-exploding campaign ads), aims his HD lens at a man in a cowboy hat who’s wiping away tears. This campaign stop will help Perry, who has probably benefited from rock-bottom expectations, and who has stabilized at high single digits in the Iowa polls. The voters in Council Bluffs say that they’re tired of the media trying to pick a candidate for them.

“How come I turn on TV and I only hear about two candidates?” asks Denny Smothers, a contractor in Council Bluffs who’s wearing a holiday-appropriate green sweater. “Newt and Mitt, Newt and Mitt. I don’t trust them, but I trust Perry.”

Perry briefly led Iowa polls before verbal flubs and attacks on his immigration and vaccination policies caused voters to stampede toward other candidates. First Cain, then Gingrich. So, what could Perry offer conservatives that those guys couldn’t? Military service, that’s one thing. Total religious fidelity—even better. The candidate who soft-launched his presidential campaign with a daylong prayer festival has started praying full time. One week earlier, Perry had debuted a TV ad showing him walking through green fields in a canvas jacket, bemoaning the loss of “values.”

“You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country,” says Perry in the ad, “when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

The ad was high-octane parody fuel, a magnet for “dislikes” on YouTube. Social conservatives are used to liberals making fun of their beliefs, though. Since the ad ran, voters have been telling pollsters they’re warming to the “oops” guy.

In Council Bluffs, voters tell me they connected with the “war on values” message. “When you can’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ to each other,” says Fred Miller, who works with the farm bureau in the city, “that’s un-American. Obamacare, that’s another example. We don’t want to pay for abortions.”

How far can Perry get with this? Not far enough to scare rival Republican strategists, not yet. Perry, they say, is just now pushing this message, less than a month before the vote. He’s trying to peel off voters who might have ruled him out before—people who are now ready to vote for Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann, or who are searching for a reason to back Gingrich. But Iowa social conservatives have been fighting a “war on values” for years, and Perry wasn’t involved with it. Santorum and Gingrich both helped with a 2010 campaign to boot Iowa Supreme Court justices who approved gay marriage. Perry didn’t. The “values” push looks a little like an exam blue book filled out by a kid who first cracked open the textbook the night before.

Why does Perry appear to be cramming? For one thing, he seems bored. He will talk values to any voter he meets, but he doesn’t turn on the charm. After Council Bluffs he buses to Harlan, Iowa, taking a guided tour of the center of town, a ring of sleepy small businesses. He comes alive a little when he meets a man who’s going to community college. “You can go to one of those schools and come out making more money than if you go for four years and study philosophy or something,” jokes Perry. But he doesn’t smile much, and he resorts to talking points when a handyman named Bill Rollins says how much he likes his “values” ad.

“I can’t anymore, you know, change my values, than change how I’m the son of two tenant farmers,” says Perry. “It’s who I am. It’s what I believe. We were talking at the debate, last … whenever that was. They were asking me about, you know … do you respect your vows. I said, yeah, very much so.”

Rollins likes Perry well enough. Other veterans of the meet-and-greet make sure that I know the governor’s handshake is iron-tight. Local pastor Dick Sciranko and his wife Sandra meet him in a clothing shop and like him right away.

“I was watching the American Family Association’s show,” says Sandra. “They said they knew somebody who said God had called him to run. And I said, if God called him, even if they say in the media he’s not a good debater, it don’t bother me.”

I mention that the loathsome mainstream media said the same thing about George W. Bush.

“Bush didn’t put himself forward like Perry does,” says Dick.

Perry closes out the day in Denison, a short drive up the road. On the way, I hear a radio version of the “values” ad with an awkward change. It omits the line “when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school,” separating Perry’s dialogue with an audible cut. When Perry speaks at Cronk’s restaurant, he uses the same “war on values” lines but moves on quickly. It’s up to Moran to drive the nail in. “He’s been faithful to his family,” says Perry’s hero surrogate. “He’s been faithful to his country.”

Perry wraps up and shakes hands, and his campaign team mops up with the voters who are still milling around, seeing how willing they’ll be to caucus on January. One of the voters, Monte Lapel, hands me an email forward he got the other day, which claims that President Obama held a Muslim day of prayer on Sept. 25, 2009. He printed it out in full color, using the back of a prescription medication info sheet, and scrawled notes on it.

“Can you get this to the right people?” he asks. “Can you get this to Gov. Perry. I want to know if it’s true. You can put anything on the Internet, right?”