“While Iowa-watchers obsess over Rick Santorum’s miniature surge and Mitt Romney’s late strength, there’s one other candidate on an upward trajectory: Rick Perry.

“Aided by millions of dollars’ worth of television ads boosting him and tearing down his rivals, the thoroughly humbled Texas governor has crept up in Iowa polling in recent weeks, improving from his crash-and-burn to reliably score in double digits…

“As the days to the caucuses wane, Perry has things other candidates would kill for: Crowds who want to meet him, ads all over the airwaves, a decent ground organization, an anti-Washington message people are hungry for, and terrific hair. The question is whether it’s too little, too late, to get through the crowded pack ahead of him.”

“A few months ago, who would have believed that Gov. Rick Perry would spend his last five days before the Iowa caucus running attacks on Rick Santorum? But there Perry was, in a tiny room upstairs at Doughy Joey’s Peetza Joynt in Waterloo, uncorking a mini stem-winder, assaulting Santorum for his time in Washington: Santorum voted for pork barrel projects and earmarks, including a teapot museum in North Carolina and Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere. Santorum also voted—multiple times—to raise the debt ceiling. (Perry has an ad up on the air hitting Santorum on these same points.)

“It was the kind of performance that reminds you why Perry is still dangerous. He was forceful, direct, and fluid. The crowd of 100 interrupted him with applause. Both before and after the speech, he worked the room with smooth professionalism. Perry hasn’t won every election he’s entered since 1985 by accident.”

“Aside from Iowa frontrunners Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, Perry is thought to be the only Republican candidate here with the kind of sophisticated ground game to pull off a much-needed comeback

“As of Friday, the Texas governor had signed up 1,500 precinct leaders in Iowa, a source inside the Perry campaign told CNN…

“The Perry camp also has 470 out-of-state volunteers descending on Iowa this weekend (including Perry’s own family, which flew in on Friday).

“The source said that by caucus night, ‘we will easily have over 2,000 Perry volunteers’ fanning out across the state knocking on doors and speaking for Perry at their voting sites.”

“A flat tax. A part-time Congress. An ad that praised celebrating Christmas in schools and scorned gays in the military. A sharpened stance against abortion. And this week, Perry barnstormed Iowa with a conservative rock star, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona, condemned by the Obama Justice Department for alleged civil rights abuses.

“Ever since Perry vaulted to the top of the pack upon entering the race in September — and tumbled almost as quickly in part because of a series of erratic, and sometimes downright comedic, debate performances — he’s been groping for a way to get hot again. And more than any other candidate in the field, he’s resorted to the kind of gimmick plays that can sometimes turn things around, but can just as easily backfire

“Perry has pledged other seemingly Herculean feats. He vowed to balance the budget by 2020, in part by capping federal spending at 18% of gross domestic product — a cap so low that most economists have dismissed it as impossible. He told one attendee at an event in Creston that if he failed to balance the budget by then, he’d slash his own executive salary — never mind that 2020 would be the final year of a second Perry term…

“Supporter Bill Thomas, 63, of Indianola was impressed, saying Perry had overcome his debate foibles. ‘Yeah, he’s getting better,’ Thomas said. ‘It’s not so much what they say; it’s what they’ve done.'”

“Almost all the candidates had one or another of these factors working in their favor. Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, was named the most knowledgeable, for instance, Mr. Romney the most electable, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas the most likely to reduce the size of government. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rick Santorum, the former senator of Pennsylvania, rated well on the attribute of relating to ordinary Iowans.

“Mr. Perry was the exception; he did not lead the field in any of the nine categories. For all his swagger, in other words, Mr. Perry is failing to stand out from the crowd. Despite spending $4.3 million in advertising, his brand has become poorly differentiated from the other Republican contenders…

“In turning his attention to Mr. Santorum and to socially conservative voters, Mr. Perry may have helped to entrench his status as a second-tier candidate, competing for a fraction of the electorate that can help a candidate to win Iowa but becomes less relevant outside of it.”

“The two Iowa surveys released this week (from CNN/Time/ORC and NBC/Marist) have each shown Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum in the top three. Senior Romney advisers argue, convincingly, that if those three ultimately constitute Iowa’s top tier the order in which they finish won’t matter much: any of those combinations would benefit Romney. The reason is that such a finish would deny an Iowa boost to Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry.

“Each man, for all of his struggles in the race, still probably has more residual potential to attract a broad coalition against Romney in other states than Paul or Santorum. But given the wounds Gingrich and Perry have accumulated (many self-inflicted), neither is likely to revive enough to present such a threat without a strong injection of momentum from Iowa. Even that might not be enough to really earn them a second look in other states, but without such a boost their odds of making a last stand against Romney could dwindle toward the microscopic…

“What’s more, it’s highly possible that even if Santorum finishes near the top here, the outcome will be too jumbled to convince Gingrich or Perry, and maybe even Michele Bachmann, to quit the race before making a last-stand in South Carolina. That would create what the Romney camp considers ‘an ideal situation, to be blunt,’ as one puts it: the possibility that several candidates to his right will continue to fragment conservative voters in New Hampshire and especially in South Carolina.”

“‘We have Fred Thompson to thank for McCain as the Republican nominee in 2008,’ wrote Lane, who said he sees Santorum playing a similar role this time by undercutting better-funded opponents.

“Referring to the local social conservative leaders in Iowa who have endorsed the former Pennsylvania senator in recent weeks, Lane continued, ‘If Santorum gets traction, we’ll have Santorum (and the IA ‘Family Policy Boys’) to thank for Romney as the Republican nominee in ’12, and the reelection of Obama on Nov. 6, 2012.’

“In an email to POLITICO, Lane elaborated: ‘Right now it looks like 2008. Evangelicals, generally speaking, don’t understand politics.'”

“Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry will skip New Hampshire Wednesday, hours after the nation’s first presidential contest in Iowa, to campaign in South Carolina — a strong sign the Texas governor is depending on the Palmetto State to help keep him in the race…

“‘Why use resources in a state where there is no fit?’ said the source close to the Perry campaign, who requested anonymity because he had not been cleared to comment by Perry’s national campaign. ‘The effort is being made to focus and hunt where the ducks are. For Rick Perry, those ducks are clearly in South Carolina. For Mitt Romney, those ducks are clearly in New Hampshire.'”

“Two thousand twelve was supposed to be the year the Tea Party picked a Republican presidential candidate. It was supposed to be this great, historic opportunity for conservatives to finally get a nominee without compromising. But the two candidates who would probably be judged the most pure of all could be days away from seeing their campaigns ended, and the two candidates who are seen as having strayed the most from the party line over the years are leading nationally.

“Lots of factors combined to bring us to this point, but the simplest explanation is that Republicans are going for intellect — which brings with it a sense of competence — over ideology. Bush fatigue probably explains a lot of that, as does the desire to beat Obama, who is far less intellectual than he is made out to be, but who is nonetheless a sharp and nimble adversary. Republican voters seem to be seeking a nominee who is sharper than Obama and more competent than Bush, and judging both Bachmann and Perry as inadequate by both measures.”