HIAWATHA, Iowa (AP) — Behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry's visit to Iowa this week to campaign for local politicians is a careful effort to remake his image from the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who couldn't remember a key message during a debate, to a more polished and prepared contender.
While he denies it is a dress rehearsal for a second presidential run, Perry is studying policy, traveling and meeting with key activists as he campaigns for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and U.S. Senate candidate Matt Whitaker in the state expected to host the first presidential caucus of 2016.
"This hasn't got anything to do with preparation. This has everything do to with Matt Whitaker," Perry told reporters Wednesday after touring a Cedar Rapids-area manufacturer.
But the appearance with Whitaker, among five candidates for U.S. Senate, was the start of Perry's third trip to Iowa since last year. It also includes a fundraiser for Branstad in Ames and three stops in Republican-heavy northwest Iowa on Thursday.
Aides say Perry, who dropped from the 2012 race after finishing fourth in Iowa, was not ready then.
"He's been brutally honest that he was unprepared," said senior adviser Jeff Miller. "Now, he spends every week talking with people."
He is tapping policy experts and influential political activists, such as the New Hampshire Republicans he entertained in Austin Tuesday, Miller said. New Hampshire hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
Perry plans to visit Eastern Europe in late summer or early fall, aides said, all with the aim of being in a better position to decide to run than he was in 2011.
Three years ago, Perry was simultaneously wrapping up a Texas legislative session, undergoing back surgery and preparing to enter a Republican race already underway. The combination, they say, was responsible for the gaffe that badly damaged his campaign and became the subject of late night television ridicule. At a November, 2011 Republican debate, Perry could not remember the name of one of the government departments he wanted to abolish as president.
Wednesday, he seemed every bit the gregarious politician who entered the 2012 race to great fanfare, only to fall short of expectations.
The message Wednesday was the same: Promoting Texas' rapid job growth as the national model, and castigating the Obama administration as "micromanaging."
"Get out of the way and let the private sector do what the private sector does best, which is create some of the most innovative products in the world," he told the plant's employees.
The words rang true to Mike Bitterman, vice president and co-owner of Master Tool and Manufacturing Inc. The plant makes a range of products from car parts to toothbrush molds.
"Thank you for making conservatism work," Bitterman said, shaking Perry's hand.
Perry said he'll decide about 2016 after he leaves office in Texas next year. But he said he'd return to Iowa this year.
"I will be coming up here, I would suggest to you, multiple times between now and the 4th of November," he said. "After that, I'll let you know."