(DES MOINES, Iowa) — When Iowa Republicans head to the caucuses Jan. 3, don’t count Texas Governor Rick Perry out of the race just yet.
The Texas governor was a force to be reckoned with when he burst into the race in August. The seemingly perfect conservative foil to the more moderate former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Perry rode a wave of enthusiasm and fundraising that shot him up to 29 percent, making him the instant frontrunner.
But like many of the dalliances Republican primary voters have had with their candidates this year, the love affair didn’t last long. Plagued by a series of disappointing showings at televised debates and public events, Perry is now fourth in the polls, behind Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Nightline anchor Terry Moran was brought along board and granted exclusive access to Perry on his 14-day bus tour across Iowa. In a wide-ranging interview, he discussed his chances in the race, the controversial role of faith in his campaign, and stepped up his attacks against Romney and Gingrich.
Perry has recently drawn much criticism for an ad entitled “Strong,” put out earlier this month. The ad features Perry attacking gays serving openly in the military, and vowing to end “Obama’s war on religion.” The video received a record number of “dislikes” on YouTube and spawned numerous parodies, but Perry stood by his message.
“The idea that we have to be forced to accept something that our faith says is not correct, I will suggest to you, is an offensive thing,” Perry told Moran. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was working and that’s where it should have been left.
“I don’t think having openly gay men and women is constructive, or is good for unit cohesiveness,” Perry continued. “I think this president, using the military as a political tool, was absolutely and totally irresponsible.”
“Strong” opens with Perry saying, “I am not ashamed to admit that I am a Christian,” a message he believed in because, he said, it is becoming more difficult for public figures to “profess” their faith.
When challenged to name who specifically was attempting to make him feel ashamed of being Christian, Perry said, “I think there are those who would try to squelch people of faith, and particularly the Christian faith….I see it on a regular basis.”
Growing up in the dusty plains of Paint Creek, Texas, Perry said religion was very much a part of his community and his childhood.
“It was school and Boy Scouts and church,” he said. “Not necessarily in that order but those were the three things that Paint Creek, Texas was all about.”
On his personal faith journey, Perry said he went through a “process” of rediscovering his Christian faith when he moved back home after serving in the Air Force in 1977.
“I had pushed God out of my life, but he has never left me,” Perry said. “There was a hole in my heart, and I wasn’t happy, and I wouldn’t be happy until I found what fit that hole in my heart. And that was God.”
While the Texas governor has long been well-positioned to nab a significant portion of the evangelical Christian vote, he still faces competition from staunch social conservatives Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Now he is doubling down on his strategy of making the culture wars a signature of his campaign.
Taking up a populist message on the stump, Perry called the link between Washington and Wall Street a “den of thieves,” and accused Romney and Gingrich of being part of the problem.
“Wall Street bailout was the single greatest act of thievery in American history — and Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were for it. That’s what insiders do. They take care of each other,” Perry told a group of roughly 50 people at Johnson’s Restaurant in Elkader, Iowa. “It’s unjust. It’s got to stop and that’s the reason I offer myself as an outsider who will walk up there, who doesn’t have any connections with the folks on Wall Street, or on K Street for that matter.”
The self-proclaimed “Washington outsider” has started taking advantage of the ever-fluid race. As the Iowa caucuses draws near, and Gingrich experiences the same softening of support Perry experienced earlier this fall, the Texas governor said the race is still wide open.
“We’re going to go on, so, you know, regardless of how we — we finish,” Perry said. “That’s why we got in this thing … I know what I’m doing. I’m pressing on.”
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Tal Kopan and Evan Perez, CNN
Julia Manchester, CNN
Dan Merica and Jeff Simon, CNN
Jeremy Diamond, CNN