Anyone who has watched the Republican debates knows Rick Perry’s most glaring vulnerability — including Rick Perry.  However, he has steadily improved and had a good debate on Saturday, and now he’s hitting the campaign trail in a big way in Iowa.  And rather than playing to his weakness, this plays right into Perry’s biggest strengths, as the National Journal reports:

Rick Perry has a reputation as a campaigner in Texas: He’s dangerous, but even more dangerous when he’s down. The next three weeks in Iowa will present him with the ultimate underdog challenge as he undertakes a last-ditch, massive effort to save his presidential bid.

Wednesday marks the beginning of a 14-day, 42-city bus tour that will see the Texas governor traverse the Hawkeye State, logging more than 1,000 miles as he strives to regain his standing among the top tier of candidates for the GOP nomination. …

His Iowa tour will begin in Council Bluffs, on the western edge of the state, and run in a semicircle across the northern half of Iowa heading east. After a leisurely break for Christmas — Perry has no events planned from the afternoon of the 22nd until the morning of the 27th — the tour will resume with a swing through the southern part of the state and snake back around to the center. Most days follow a pattern: two to four “meet-and-greets,” often at local restaurants or coffee shops, followed by a town hall meeting in the afternoon.

As he travels through the state, Perry will seek to build a coalition of evangelical and tea party voters, often attempting to pick off supporters from his rivals. He’s shown as much in the ads he’s run in the state targeting those specific groups. His fight for the Christian right, a key voting bloc during the Iowa caucuses, will put him in competition against Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Assuming his back troubles are behind him (pardon the pun), Perry can be a force of nature in retail politics.  He got off to a good start in Iowa when he jumped into the race, but his immediate rise in national polls took his focus elsewhere.  Now with Iowa the only prize that Perry can reasonably grasp at the moment, he’s going all in — like Bachmann and Rick Santorum, the latter of whom has already visited all 99 counties and has built a surprisingly extensive organization.

Those will be his two main competitors for voters who won’t back either Gingrich or Romney, and of course Perry wants to split social conservatives and Tea Party activists away from Gingrich, if possible.  There is some evidence, although rather thin, that a Perry comeback has already begun.  The latest poll from the American Research Group shows Perry rising to fourth place, but more significantly, into double digits at 13%.  That’s a bounce upward of eight points since last month, trailing only Gingrich’s 19-point rise in the same period.  Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are just ahead of Perry at 17%, putting Perry within reach of a second-place finish.

If Perry can even get to second place in Iowa, it would be a stunning change of fortune and could restore credibility to his campaign.  With conservatives despairing at the prospect of a Gingrich-Romney contest, Perry could steal a march on the Right and find himself very much back in the mix — assuming that Ron Paul doesn’t beat him to it.