By Mary Wisniewski
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry, down in the polls and failing to find a winning campaign strategy, is relying on folks from back home to help lift his struggling presidential election bid in Iowa.
More than a dozen Texans stuffed boxes with Perry signs and T-shirts at a hotel conference room in West Des Moines, Iowa, chatting about their hometowns and sampling Texas-size muffins from a buffet table.
They were part of the first wave of what the Perry campaign hopes will be hundreds of Texans and supporters from other states who are volunteering to come to Iowa to boost Perry ahead of Tuesday's Republican caucus vote.
Perry could use the help. His campaign has flagged since he jumped into the race in August in the top tier of candidates, promoting his job creation record in Texas where he is the longest-serving governor.
But after poor debate performances, Perry lost ground. A CNN/Time Iowa poll this week showed him in fifth place with 11 percent, below Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich.
The poor poll numbers come despite Perry trying to promote his social conservative credentials in a series of ads, including one in which he attacked gays in the military. He also has taken a harder line on abortion in a play to Iowa's large evangelical Christian constituency.
More pro-Perry Texans will be arriving to work phone banks, cheer at rallies and talk to voters, according to campaign representatives and volunteers. They will include several Republican state legislators, as well as the statewide officeholders.
"I felt that he needs to get some traction here," said Joe Hyde, 47, of San Angelo, Texas, who arrived in Des Moines Tuesday with his 18-year-old daughter Shelby.
A political science major on Christmas break, Shelby was inserting metal posts into Perry yard signs. Like other volunteers, she and her father spent their own money to get to Iowa.
Several Perry backers expressed concern that the debates did not show who Perry really is.
"The debates have become a reality TV show that have overshadowed executive experience," Hyde said.
SIGN OF WEAKNESS?
Dennis Goldford, a Drake University politics professor, said the Texas volunteer army looks like a sign of weakness. Perry's huge spending on Iowa television and radio ads - which the campaign confirmed at about $2.86 million for December - does not seem to be helping.
"They're well-done ads," Goldford said. "But how many times do you get a second chance to make a first impression?"
Goldford said Iowa conservatives are looking for someone who can "go slug it out toe to toe with President Obama," and that's why Perry's poor performance in the debates hurt him.
Goldford said it is hard to say how much the Texas volunteers will help.
"In terms of Iowans, you're going to respond more to somebody from your neighborhood," Goldford said. "Remember it's a local precinct caucus. You're going to respond to somebody local rather than to somebody from outside the state."
There are Texas-Iowa connections. Some volunteers have worked on previous Iowa campaigns, according to campaign spokesman Ray Sullivan, and some said they had family in Iowa. Some Iowans retire or spend winters in Texas.
Perry has in recent weeks pushed his campaign farther to the right on social issues. John Strong, 70, of West Des Moines, said Perry pushed it too much.
"He's a little too far to the right," said Strong, who supports Ron Paul. Strong said even though he himself does not like gay marriage, Perry seems "a little hateful" about it. "He went really far right, obviously far right, maybe falsely far right," Strong said. "I think people see through that."
Not every Texas Republican is on board with Perry. One Republican state lawmaker, when asked if he was planning to volunteer in Iowa, responded tartly, "Hell, no! Why would I waste my time and money on that BS?"
(Additional reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Alistair Bell and Bill Trott)