Image: Rick Perry
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
In this Sept. 24, 2011 file photo, Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, Mich.
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updated 9/26/2011 4:15:05 PM ET 2011-09-26T20:15:05

Call it a personal class war: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is trying to draw sharp class lines with his chief GOP presidential rival, the well-heeled former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"As the son of tenant farmers, I can promise you I wasn't born with four aces in my hand," Perry recently told about 200 central Iowa GOP activists. He grinned and then paused to allow chuckles to roll through the audience as the message became clear: Perry was a product of humble beginnings — ordinary folk like them — while Romney came from privilege.

The line was a riff on Romney's zinger during a debate in Tampa, Fla., when he suggested that Texas' job growth had more to do with the state's natural gas and oil supply than Perry's leadership.

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When asked how much credit Perry deserves for the state's growing employment, Romney replied: "If you're dealt four aces, that doesn't necessarily make you a great poker player."

Perry's advisers apparently saw the crack as an opportunity to illustrate personality, background and, perhaps, character differences between Perry and Romney, the top two candidates in a GOP field that mostly agrees on major policy issues.

In Iowa and elsewhere, Perry has started linking himself to the middle class, if not to low-income Americans, and tying Romney to the nation's upper echelon. His larger strategy is to paint Romney as a pre-packaged politician out of step with everyday Americans, plant suggestions with Republicans feeling the pinch of tough economic times that Romney doesn't understand their plight, and undermine Romney's attempts to connect with middle-class voters.

Perry sees another opening with his I'm-like-you-and-he's-not argument: Tea party activists and other conservatives who dominate the GOP primary electorate are clamoring for an authentic candidate to challenge a Democratic incumbent they view as a detached elitist.

He's also using class to draw distinctions in part to counter criticism that he is not up to challenging Romney, who ran for the GOP nomination in 2008 and led in national polls for 2012 until the Texan entered the race last month.

Republicans not sold on candidate choices

Still, reflecting the sensitivity of the issue, Perry has stopped short of acknowledging publicly that he was drawing a direct comparison with Romney.

"This country that we live in is not a class society," Perry said when pressed recently by reporters in Iowa. "This country is based on hard work and vision and anyone who does that can achieve anything."

Not that his campaign was even making an effort at subtlety. In a sign of the sharp attacks to come, Perry aides sent out an email last week titled "Middle Class Mitt."

It noted that Romney has a net worth of more than $190 million and resurrected a Romney remark in which he seemed to suggest that he was part of "the great middle class — the 80 to 90 percent of us in this country." It also highlighted Romney's comment to voters last June: "I'm also unemployed."

Video: Romney wins Michigan Straw Poll (on this page)

"Hundreds of millions in the bank. Beach and lake houses around the country. A successful career acquiring and dismantling companies and jobs," according to the Perry camp statement — a script that read much like a possible future TV ad.

Perry's discussion of class differences comes as a debate rages in Washington between President Barack Obama, who is calling for higher taxes on the richest Americans, and the Republican-controlled House, which is accusing the president of "class warfare" as he seeks to rally support for legislation designed to boost the economy.

Within the GOP presidential primary, Perry's allies hope that he can sow mistrust of Romney, a multimillionaire former businessman born into a wealthy family, among conservatives who already are skeptical of the Northeastern Republican who has flip-flopped on a series of issues they hold dear.

The Perry strategy carries a risk: Discussions of class may invite increased scrutiny of Perry, who today lives comfortably thanks to Texas taxpayers.

Still, the differences between the two couldn't be clearer.

Perry, 61, was raised on a west Texas farm, attended Texas A&M University and worked on the family's farm after five years in the Air Force before entering politics in the 1980s. He has spent the last 27 years in elected office, including a decade as governor, and has a net worth of roughly $1.1 million.

But in small-town Iowa, Perry emphasized his up-by-the-bootstraps biography. He sketched a scene of his early life in west Texas, with its small churches and rural highways, familiar to many of the activists who attend the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, important early-voting contests next year.

"When I passed that county courthouse and that square, it was a good feeling to know I'm back in middle America where the values are really strong," he said during an appearance that showed him clearly at ease.

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Conversely, Romney often is criticized as robotic and faces the challenge of personally connecting with voters. He is fighting the perception of an East Coast patrician, a caricature President George W. Bush successfully hung on his 2004 Democratic challenger John Kerry, a Massachusetts senator.

Romney, 64, was raised in an affluent Detroit neighborhood, the son of George Romney, a top automotive executive who became governor of Michigan. Romney attended Stanford, Brigham Young and Harvard universities and cut his own career in business, founding a successful investment capital firm.

He is well-known to GOP voters in early primary states given that he ran hard for the 2008 GOP nomination but lost.

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Plain-talking Southern governors have done well in the Iowa caucuses. They include former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who came from a poor family, in 2008 and then-Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, who was legacy to a powerful East Coast family, in 2000.

"There is an authenticity factor," South Carolina Republican activist Randy Page of Columbia, S.C., said of Perry. "And I think people here react to that."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Romney wins Michigan Straw Poll

  1. Closed captioning of: Romney wins Michigan Straw Poll

    >>> michigan republican party also held a straw poll this weekend on mackinaw island , and mitt romney played up his michigan roots to party activists in the state where his father was governor.

    >> there's only one theng michigan doesn't have, and that is there's never been a president of the united states that was born in michigan . and i'm hoping to rectify that.

    >> romney won the straw poll in michigan with 51% of the vote, beating rick perry by 34 points. robert is the chair of the michigan republican party . thanks so much for joining us. is mitt romney strong enough to be the nominee against barack obama despite all of the other state reactions to him, which you could argue is a home state of michigan , but other states and other activists saying that they still want somebody else into this race?

    >> hello, andrea. thanks for having me. yeah, i think what governor romney is showing that not only his strength in michigan but that his message is beginning to permeate across the country. and look, we've got a great field out there on that debate floor. and i think as we look ahead, you'll see more definition, more vibrancy, more definition, and romney , you know, if he shows what he can do in michigan , he may likely be the nominee.

    >> what about all of the hankering after chris christie . how do you react to that? do you believe that chris christie could still get into the race at this late date?

    >> you know, i know folks are encouraging him. we hear that frequently. he's got a great message. he'd make a great candidate. but i think he's made his decision. it appears the time to come in would be now. and if he's going to do it, he should get in now. but, you know, that's between him and his family to decide.

    >> and what about rick perry ?

    >> rick perry came in michigan . he gave a great speech. the folks really reacted well. we had almost 2,000 attendees over the conference. all representatives every county in our state, all 83 counties. and his message was strong, and people reacted well to it. you know, in michigan , it's about jobs. we're ground zero for the impacts of the obama stimulus and the economy and all the implications of his governing. so i think that if rick perry campaigns in michigan and i hope herman cain will as well. he showed his strength in florida. we encourage him in michigan as well and open up the field and help to find the next president.

    >> richard, does the president get any credit for saving the automobile industry there?

    >> well, sure. i think you can't say that the dollars didn't help. of course, they helped. but the format of it, government-backed taxpayer money, there was a bankruptcy. there's a capital markets that deal with bankruptcies. there's financing for bankruptcies. it's called dip financing . it's one of the things governor romney talked about early on is let the companies go through the normal course of bankruptcy, come to a good conclusion, deal with debtholders and shareholders and vendors and management and put the company back on track. so was it the best use of taxpayers' money? i'd say no. was the outcome acceptable? certainly. nobody can complain about that.

    >> robert schostak, thanks for joining us.

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