When Rick Perry is on his game, he’s one of the best hand-to-hand politicians around. He can blow the doors off Republican confabs, loves to kiss babies and flirts with old ladies with surprising conviction. But when he’s off, watching him feels almost cruel. His most loyal advisers averted their eyes when he imploded during his last campaign, which essentially ended when he uttered the word that summed up his 2012 White House effort: “Oops.”
Perry is set to try again and plans to launch a second bid for the GOP nomination on June 4. He says he has recovered from the back surgery that left him addled during late 2011 and early 2012. He is working with policy tutors so he can go beyond the tropes. He even hired a public-speaking consulting firm run by an alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Perry knows his last attempt was a disaster and is trying to prevent a sequel. “I will just suggest that I was naive in thinking that I had a grasp of the issues that you need to be able to discuss at length and in depth,” Perry says during an interview with TIME.
By planning a Dallas-area announcement, flanked by former Navy SEALs and Marines, Perry hopes to remind voters of his years flying C-130 cargo planes as an active-duty Air Force captain. Citing his military service and Texas’ economic growth on his watch as governor, Perry says he is uniquely qualified among the crowded 2016 field. “I don’t want to sit on the porch and be retired when I think that I have something to give to this country,” Perry, 65, says.
Slinking into retirement is not Perry’s style. The hard-charging onetime cotton farmer has spent 30 days in Iowa–the most of all the GOP hopefuls–since the start of 2013, working to convince Hawkeyes that he is not the dolt they saw on television during the last run. He traded in his tooled cowboy boots for boring black orthotics and now favors hipster specs. During a recent stop in Holstein, Iowa (pop. 1,396), Perry boasted that businesses in his state added 1.4 million jobs from 2007 to 2014, his final year in office. Standing in a VFW hall, Perry made it sound easy: “Governing is not actually rocket science.”
Running for President, however, requires a political machine, and Perry’s has fallen apart. His chief strategist from 2012 is sitting out Perry 2.0. His pollster from the last round is working for Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. And Perry’s ad maven is creating a media strategy for Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. At the same time, Perry is four years older in a race that, for the moment, seems to favor newcomers. While 59% of likely Iowa caucus participants have a favorable view of Perry, only 3% named him their top pick in a recent Des Moines Register poll. Fresh-faced Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 47, leads the field of 16 contenders with 17% support.
Perry’s task now is to convince Iowans that he can do for America what he did for Texas. He is dismissing an abuse-of-power indictment hanging over him as baseless and politically motivated. Meanwhile, he’s asking forgiveness for his performance four years ago, which turned him into a punch line. On his first trip to Iowa as a candidate, in 2011, he suggested that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke was “almost treasonous” and Americans might “treat him pretty ugly.” He delivered such a loopy speech in New Hampshire that organizers felt compelled to hold a follow-up press conference to deny that Perry was drunk or high. At the rear of hotel ballrooms and diners across Iowa and New Hampshire, aides and reporters exchanged knowing looks as his campaign events veered off-script. But Americans love a comeback story, and Perry is betting his will sell.
Yet he is facing a far more impressive field of rivals than before and will enjoy far less room for error. Whether he can erase the memory of his 2012 implosion, witnessed in real time over 23 excruciating weeks, is unclear; it’s among the first questions Perry gets from party activists and donors alike. His diminished prospects are one of the reasons Steve Munisteri, who led the Texas GOP for four years under Perry, is now a top adviser for Paul’s campaign.
That’s not Perry’s only challenge. Fox News is limiting participation in the first GOP debate, to be held on Aug. 6, to just the top 10 candidates in national polls. That would leave Perry offstage as things stand now. But he finds some comfort in a recent poll of Republican-minded voters that showed that only 4% of respondents definitely could not support him.
Perry’s advisers now are trying to keep their candidate from adding to that tally in the upcoming Fox debate–if Perry can get into it.
This appears in the June 15, 2015 issue of TIME.