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Perry exudes confidence, swagger on campaign trail

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a campaign visit to Epoch Homes Thursday in Concord, N.H.

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a campaign visit to Epoch Homes Thursday in Concord, N.H.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Rick Perry — the swaggering, back-slapping Texan — grew somber as he spoke amid the carnival din.

"Friday, Iowa's going to bury one of your own, one of those young Navy SEALs who was killed in Afghanistan," he said, pausing as his voice cracked. "I want you to think about T.J. Tumilson and the sacrifices that are still being made today so a guy like me can stand up on a soapbox at the Iowa State Fair and talk freely about freedom and liberty and America and that we are an exceptional country and we're going to stay an exceptional country."

Then, Perry pointed his left index finger skyward, raised his voice and declared: "We don't need anybody apologizing anywhere in this world about America!"

By that point, much of his Iowa audience was captivated, offering thunderous applause for an insinuation conservatives like to cast on the Democrat he hopes to succeed, President Barack Obama.

Welcome to the Rick Perry roadshow.

The newest entrant into the Republican presidential race has added a Texas-sized dose of spark to a crop of candidates who haven't seemed to stoke the passions of the tea party or the broader GOP. No matter where he goes, the Lone Star governor seems to own his crowds within minutes of taking the stage.

He moves but doesn't pace. He gestures but not wildly. He sheds his sport coat — and he turns heads.

"I'm looking for who's the toughest and who stands with his values," said Kyle Moeller, a 21-year-old college student who met Perry at the Walcott compound that bills itself as the world's largest truck stop. "Right now, that looks like Rick Perry."

Perry talks with the passion of a preacher but the calculations of a politician. He puts his feet up on bales of hay. There's an ease about him, a comfort no matter the setting, and a larger-than-life style that commands attention.

He often speaks in sound bites that pack a punch, particularly with a tea party-infused GOP that's latching onto anti-establishment candidates.

"I will go to Washington, D.C., to make it as inconsequential to your lives as I can," he promises in every speech, a sure applause line before conservative audiences.

He knows his audience and plays to it.

At the state fair in Iowa, he ate what he called "corny dogs" and talked about growing up the son of a "dry-land cotton farmer" who appreciates the agricultural way of life. "I got up here and I was trying to figure out how to get this hay here back to Texas," he added.

Over the past week, his charm has been on full display in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters demand a personal approach and judge candidates in part on their pizazz. In presidential politics, charismatic candidates often — but not always — have the upper hand. Consider Bill Clinton's victories over George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. Or George W. Bush's wins over Al Gore and John Kerry.

Yet for all Perry's appeal before large audiences, Thursday's brush with voters in a New Hampshire coffee shop may have revealed some rough edges in his skills as a retail politician.

Perry appeared unprepared to handle detailed questions from New Hampshire voters, who have come to expect frank discussions with presidential candidates. He largely avoided a question about his position on global warming from Tim Chrysostom, 44, of Canterbury, N.H.

"We teach the facts," Perry told him of Texas schools. "You'll have to go look in the class books."

Chrysostom, a Democrat, wasn't pleased, saying: "That was a pretty direct question and that was a pretty direct dodge."

Another voter later asked for specifics of Perry's plans to improve the economy.

"We have to get America working again," Perry responded, adding a "God bless, brother," before moving to the next voter.

In style and tone, Perry stands in contrast to his GOP rivals.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, has long struggled to connect with his audiences, and has come across as forced when he's tried. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann jolted the race — for a while at least — earlier this summer with her battle cry that Obama will be a one-term president. But she's a relative novice when it comes to hand-to-hand campaigning. And while Texas Rep. Ron Paul can draw crowds with his rants against the federal government, he's hardly seen as a candidate who can leave an audience spellbound.

Still, there's a danger to Perry's shoot-from-the-hip, free-wheeling style.

He drew scorn early this week from Republicans and Democrats alike when he said that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be committing a "treasonous" act if he decided to "print more money to boost the economy." And even some Republicans cringed when Perry said he would be a president who was "passionate about America — that's in love with America" and seemingly suggested that Obama wasn't that kind of president.

By midweek in New Hampshire, Perry had pulled back a bit. He lingered with his audiences but didn't stick around to chat with reporters. And he slightly toned down the bravado, perhaps an acknowledgement that his big-swinging Texas pitch may not play so well with taciturn New Englanders.