After Rocky Start, More Study and Sleep for Perry

Jeff Zeleny|The New York Times

Rick Perry of Texas struggled through his first three debates, so his aides have staged practice sessions, complete with a stand-in for Mitt Romney. He has stirred outrage among conservatives on immigration, so he is defending his stance on the campaign trail as good economics.

Texas Governor Rick Perry
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And as he prepares for two more debates in the next nine days, along with his first major policy address, his advisers have devised another way to help: requiring Mr. Perry to get more sleep.

After weeks in which he has stirred doubts about his abilities as a candidate, Mr. Perry is re-examining his campaign — and himself — in an effort to correct his shortcomings of style and substance so he can capitalize on his strengths, including the $15 million he has in the bank and what he points to as a record of job creation in Texas.

“He seems uncomfortable on the stage,” said Sam Clovis, a conservative radio host in Sioux City who had a more favorable impression of Mr. Perry after shaking his hand during a weekend campaign stop here. “He’s going to have to get much, much better.”

The transition to being a presidential candidate has been harder than Mr. Perry expected, according to several aides and friends, who said he knew he needed to improve. His wife, Anita, who said last month that he would be “better prepared” in debates, accompanied him to Iowa. She jumped into the conversation at one point to make a point when he was pressed on immigration.

Mr. Perry’s strategy was built on his economic message, but it has been complicated by some of his statements on illegal immigration.

He opened each campaign event on a weekend visit to Iowa by reciting the steps he had taken to enforce immigration laws, trying to fight an impression pushed by his rivals that he is soft on illegal immigration because he signed legislation granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants at public universities and colleges.

He argued that helping some illegal immigrants get a college education was a proper response to the failure of the federal government to secure the border, because it would increase their ability to become productive citizens.

“We wanted to make taxpayers, not tax wasters,” Mr. Perry said, responding to one of several questions from voters on the topic. “The issue was really driven by economics.”

Mr. Perry has also intensified his attacks on Mr. Romney, suggesting again over the weekend that his rival had not always been a true conservative.

With less than three months until the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary kick off the Republican nominating contest, Mr. Perry will soon begin broadcasting television advertisements to amplify the face-to-face introductions he has been having with voters. The advertising campaign, aides said, will also focus on what they say is Mr. Romney’s lack of consistency on the issues of most importance to conservatives.

But Mr. Perry has clearly not fully addressed his own troubles with conservatives.

In interviews with nearly two dozen Republican voters who saw him in Iowa, sharp criticism of his views on immigration was volunteered in all but one conversation. Several people said they had planned — and, in many cases, still hoped — to support him, but remained undecided.

Mr. Perry raised his voice when a voter asked why so many conservative commentators were critical of his candidacy.

“America is looking for a president who will look them right in the eye and tell them the truth,” Mr. Perry said sternly. “They are interested not in what some pundit says or the joke of the day that they try to get a laugh during a debate or on a television station.”

For a politician who has won every election over nearly three decades in Texas, Mr. Perry’s adjustment to the presidential campaign is a work in progress. He is gracious and courteous when shaking hands and signing autographs, yet when the small talk turned to Medicare’s prescription drug coverage or Social Security, a grimace occasionally replaced his smile.

He raced through campaign events, delivering speeches that clocked in around eight minutes. He quickly moved to question-and-answer sessions, but after calling on five people, he shouted, “Last question!” (Most candidates assign that task to an aide to avoid the impression that it is the candidate who is eager to go.)

Yet by raising $17 million in the opening weeks of his campaign — more than any other candidate in the race — Mr. Perry is preparing for a long-term strategy of competing aggressively in all parts of the country against Mr. Romney. The $15 million he had remaining as of Sept. 30 is helping him build a robust ground organization in Iowa, where he is hoping an early victory will give him a lift in a drawn-out nominating fight.

“I don’t think it’s impossible for him to recover,” Gov. Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, a Republican, said in an interview. “It’s a test that you’ve got to go through if you want to be president of the United States. I certainly wouldn’t count Rick Perry out.”

Yet a lot has changed since the August morning when Mr. Branstad first talked strategy over a private breakfast of eggs and bacon with Mr. Perry at Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion in Des Moines. Mr. Branstad urged his fellow Republican to keep his message focused tightly on the new jobs that have been created in Texas and not allow the conversation to stray.

Mr. Perry and his team were initially taken aback by intense criticism from conservatives, particularly on immigration and Social Security, which he characterized as a “Ponzi scheme,” a phrase he did not repeat when he talked to voters here.

Aides said there was a recognition that he must perform better in debates on Tuesday in New Hampshire and next week in Nevada if he hoped to retain his position as the leading Republican alternative to Mr. Romney.

“We had a tired puppy,” said one Republican friend, who talked to Mr. Perry after his three back-to-back debates last month. “He had been pushed really hard.”

But his weekend visit to Iowa, where he made four public appearances and met privately with religious leaders and influential party activists, underscored that his challenges are not limited to the debate stage. Several Republican voters who turned out for his campaign events said they knew little about him, aside from the recent debates, and walked away disappointed that they had not learned more.

Steven Berntson, 57, a corn and soybean farmer from Paullina, asked Mr. Perry to discuss the books that have shaped his life. Mr. Perry replied by citing the free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, but did not name the title of his well-known book, “The Road to Serfdom,” as he criticized Keynesian economics and turned back to a general conversation about the economy.

After Mr. Perry finished speaking, as he shook hands and signed autographs nearby, Mr. Berntson said that he was disappointed by the answer and by the fact that he had mentioned only one book.

“I wanted to see how deep he was,” Mr. Berntson said. “I asked an open-ended question that I thought would give the candidate lots and lots of room to help us know who he is. And he talked about it for less than one minute.”

Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican who represents the swath of the state Mr. Perry visited, said voters were eager to explore Mr. Perry’s views on immigration and the economy in greater depth. He said the next two debates would offer another opportunity for Mr. Perry.

“His momentum has diminished, but there was an expectation for him that was built beyond reality,” Mr. King said. “People still want to take a look and find out who the real Rick Perry is.”