Meet Rick Perry, lifelong hunter.
He's floundered on the debate stage. He's stumbled on immigration. But the Perry who showed up for a pheasant hunt on a chilly Iowa Saturday was perfectly, naturally at ease _ and not afraid to talk about it.
"As long as I've got memory I've had something to go hunting with," Perry said, "so it was a long love affair with a boy and his gun that turned into a man and his gun and then it turned into a man and his son and his daughter and their guns."
Perry has been a hunter for decades. He hunted with his family, sometimes at a rented ranch with a racially problematic name. And when he was a Texas state legislator, he and a group of the freshman members he served with would fly in Perry's plane to hunting camps in different parts of Texas.
"Perry had an old junky airplane we flew everywhere; he had an old snub-nosed 310," said Cliff Johnson, a former state legislator who still hunts with Perry, referring to a small Cessna 310 airplane. "Hell, every time third time we flew we'd have an onboard fire. They were put together with John Deere parts, let's just put it that way."
Contrast that with his rival, Mitt Romney, who struggled mightily to explain his own limited personal background with hunting and firearms. In 2008, Romney said he'd been "a hunter pretty much all my life" when he'd actually only been out a handful of times. He backed the 1994 Brady gun control bill, and as governor of Massachusetts, he supported the state's strict gun control laws and signed one of the nation's tougher assault weapons laws.
Perry's love affair, on the other hand, has manifested itself as a record of easing restrictions on carrying guns in Texas.
"Gov. Perry believes that all law-abiding, licensed gun owners should be able to carry their firearm anywhere they please," Perry's campaign said in a statement outlining his positions on gun control.
As governor, Perry supported legislation that made it easier for Texans to pay for a concealed handgun license, and a bill to let them keep their concealed handgun licenses for five years instead of four. He helped cut agreements with other states to let Texans carry their concealed handguns outside the state.
Perry has his own concealed handgun license _ and regularly carries one, once famously shooting a coyote that was threatening his daughter's Labrador retriever while out on a jog. The gun company, Ruger, has a special version of its .380 in Perry's honor: the True Texan Coyote Special.
And where it comes to guns, Perry has plenty of the same aggressive bravado he's displayed on the debate stage. He sent a video introduction to the National Rifle Association Convention that featured him shooting a rifle and calling himself "a believer in the notion that gun control is hitting what you're aiming at." (He's also said it's "use both hands.")
He's not afraid to make it a point of aggressive contrast with Romney.
"I would no more consider living in Massachusetts than I suspect a great number of folks from Massachusetts would like to live in Texas," he wrote in his book, "Fed Up!," while naming Ted Kennedy and John Kerry as popular figures in that state. "Texans, on the other hand, elect folks like me. You know the type, the kind of guy who goes jogging in the morning, packing a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets and shoots a coyote that is threatening his daughter's dog."
Perry is also quietly, obviously comfortable with a rural hunting culture that's common to many Republican primary voters _ but that's alien to many of his rivals.
Ahead of Saturday's hunt, Perry and a handful of his staffers stayed at the 14-room Hole in the Wall Lodge outside of tiny Akron, in western Iowa, reachable only after a drive down a dirt country road. He appeared in the main lodge shortly after dawn, clad in hunting camouflaged rain boots and a tan button-down shirt.
"I feel great," a relaxed Perry, leaning his head back against a wood and stone pillar, told the pair of reporters who had appeared in the half-darkened lodge for a 6:30 a.m. breakfast prepared by the innkeepers. Perry said he wasn't worried about his back bothering him during the hunt. He had surgery to fuse two of the vertebrae in his spine earlier this year, and said he had been stretching and swimming until he could start running again.
He spent at least a half an hour over breakfast with Iowa Rep. Steve King, leaning on his elbow as King explained the background of the yearly hunt. It's named for Col. Bud Day, a decorated Air Force veteran who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He mixed easily with King's family, including two sons and two grandchildren.
And when King and his family clambered into waiting cars to drive the dozen or so miles to the Loess Hills Hunting Preserve, Perry carried his own shotgun to his waiting SUV.