By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For Republican Rick Perry, the 2012 presidential race was supposed to be about jobs and anti-Washington anger. After a bad week on the campaign trail, he hopes it can be again.
The Texas governor, who glided to the top of the Republican pack after jumping into the race last month, faces his first big test in trying to recover from a wobbly debate performance and a bad loss in a candidate straw poll in Florida.
Those setbacks reinforced doubts among some Republicans about Perry, who has taken heat from rivals for his attacks on the Social Security retirement program, mandating a vaccine for young girls against a sexually transmitted virus, and giving the children of illegal immigrants cheaper in-state college tuition levels in Texas.
To get back on track, Republican strategists say, Perry needs to concentrate on what he does well. He should stress his job creation and economic record in Texas, clearly lay out his policy views and woo voters with face-to-face campaigning.
"If you are looking for a silver-tongued devil, you aren't going to get it with Rick Perry," said Republican consultant Rich Galen. "You have to play to your own strengths, and Perry's strength is not debating. It's retail politics, giving set speeches and talking about his record."
Perry held conference calls on Monday night with activists in Iowa and South Carolina, which hold early nominating contests next year, to answer questions and defend his views on the vaccine, immigration and Social Security controversies, a party source said.
Perry should do more public events where he takes questions from voters, one party strategist suggested, particularly freewheeling public town hall style sessions where he can begin to ease doubts about his rambling debate performances.
"He's got to prove that he can think on his feet," said Fergus Cullen, former state chairman of the Republican Party in New Hampshire, where town hall meetings are a tradition.
"If he did an open town hall meeting where he took 10 to 15 questions and handled himself well that would go a long way to restoring confidence," Cullen said.
Perry also needs to sharpen his views on foreign policy to avoid missteps like last week's rambling answer to a question on the Taliban, which looked like a candidate with little knowledge of an issue grasping to recall his briefing points.
A campaign spokesman said Perry is still in better shape than Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is his top rival for the Republican presidential nomination, in the race for the right to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 2012 election.
"The governor has been in the race for 5 1/2 weeks. Mitt Romney has been running for 5 1/2 years and he's not getting any traction," said Perry spokesman Mark Miner, adding that the campaign did not plan to change Perry's strategy or schedule.
"There is a lot of work to be done. This is a long campaign," Miner said. "We're going to continue doing what we're doing."
Perry surged to the top of the field of Republican White House hopefuls with the strong support of social and religious conservatives, who play a big role in the party's nominating process.
But his grip on the top spot in the race has been slipping. A CNN poll that asked Republican voters about the party's candidates, taken after last week's debate and released on Monday, showed Perry's lead over rival Mitt Romney dropping from 11 to 8 percentage points.
The debate on immigration raised new questions about Perry's conservative support. In what seemed a direct rebuke to them, Perry questioned whether opponents of the tuition plan for children of illegal immigrants had a heart.
He also stressed his opposition to another policy with conservative backing, building a border fence with Mexico.
Craig Schoenfeld, a veteran Republican strategist in Iowa and a Perry supporter, said Perry needed to get back to stressing job growth and his economic record. While Perry's blunt style attracts criticism, he said it was a plus in Iowa.
"That's his best asset, being a straight shooter," Schoenfeld said. "I want a leader who will get us back to work, and that's what I'm hoping to hear from him personally."
Given the ebbs and flows of any campaign, strategists said Perry's stumbles were not surprising or politically fatal more than four months before the first nominating contest in Iowa.
"He had a rough week, but all campaigns hit bad patches," Republican strategist Todd Harris said. "All eyes now will be watching to see if he can recover and adjust and grow as a candidate."
(Editing by Will Dunham)
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