Rick Perry expresses no regrets. He's not taking any kind of mind-altering drugs. And he can laugh at his disastrous debate performance — the one with the infamous brain freeze — and wants you to laugh too.
Above all, the Texas governor wants another chance, a do-over of sorts after one of the quickest rise-and-pratfalls in modern presidential campaign history.
"I'm asking people to give me a second look," Perry said in an interview Thursday between California fundraising stops and a late-night appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
"If there's one story out there that people are going to hear from me over the next 45 days, it's like: 'Listen, you took a look at me when I first got in here and, by reputation, you liked what you saw. We've had our bumps, we've had our hurdles, but give me a second look.' "
Perry's message hasn't changed much since he joined the Republican contest in August and quickly soared to the top of national opinion polls. It's still about jobs and his performance in Texas — a job-creating engine, by his account — about overhauling (and bashing) Washington and creating a flatter, less-convoluted tax code.
The biggest differences are the puffy bags under his eyes, a testament to the campaign grind, and a less swaggering, more humble approach, embodied by the self-deprecating TV ad that his campaign launched Thursday in Iowa.
In the spot, Perry begins by naming the third federal agency — the Department of Energy — that he wants to eliminate as president, a detail that eluded him for nearly a minute in a painful debate last month. He smiles about his omission, over a strumming guitar soundtrack, makes his pitch to "clean house" in Washington, then play-muffs the closing line.
It is those sort of lapses — and a flamboyantly histrionic speech in New Hampshire in October — that has given rise to rumors that Perry may be suffering an unfortunate pharmacological effect of painkillers prescribed for the back surgery he underwent in July.
But Perry said Thursday that he took the drugs for "probably less than" 10 days immediately after surgery and is no longer on any sort of medication. He emphasized his vigorous workout regimen — a four-mile run along the Sacramento River on Wednesday, 30 minutes on the stationary bike and weightlifting Thursday — to address any questions about back pain or his overall vigor.
Despite his plunge from national front-runner to second-tier status, Perry suggested there was nothing he would do differently. "Would I change this? Would I change that? Would I remember the Department of Energy?" he said with a small laugh. "Those are frankly very minor issues compared to what's this country facing."
Perry insisted that the GOP nominating fight remains wide open and he sees a clear path to victory, although he couldn't — or wouldn't — enunciate it Thursday. He seemed to downplay the import of the two earliest voting states, Iowa and New Hampshire — "you have to obviously carry enough of ... your supporters" — before getting to South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, where he figures to run stronger if he survives those contests.
"From the standpoint of having a road map drawn out, I can't particularly tell you that I've got one in mind that says [I] have to be in third place here and I have to be in fourth place here, and I have to win here," Perry said, seated in the darkened backroom of a high-end Italian restaurant. "This is a very fluid process we're in."
Perry has served longer than any other governor in Texas history, surprising many at home with his decision to seek a third four-year term in 2010. He may surprise people again with his refusal Thursday to rule out a fourth run in 2016 — assuming he is not, as he said he expects to be, sworn in as president in January 2013.
Asked twice about ruling out yet another run for governor, Perry demurred. "I'm approaching 62 years old," he said, "and still feel pretty darn healthy. And happy."