'Perry's posse' volunteers ride to Iowa as caucuses near

Posted Monday, Jan. 02, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Ask Patrick Burke why he is spending a frigid, blustery New Year's Day in Iowa trying to help Rick Perry's presidential campaign, and he responds with a sobering answer.

Burke, from the North Texas town of Allen, says he is battling mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer, and isn't sure how long he may live. Fulfilling a civic commitment by participating in a presidential campaign -- specifically Perry's -- is on his "bucket list" of things he wants to accomplish before he dies, Burke says.

The 55-year-old Air Force veteran and former lawman is one of hundreds of volunteers sweeping into Iowa as part of a strike force to help the Texas governor bound out of a prolonged slump in the polls and fashion a desperately needed comeback in Tuesday's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Burke, despite his failing health, logged 511 miles Saturday on dirt roads and desolate highways to talk to potential caucusgoers. Other volunteers are making similar treks as they fan out across the state to help build Perry's support in the final hours before the caucuses.

The strike force has been nicknamed "Perry's posse" because most of them are from Texas.

But Perry campaign communications director Ray Sullivan says volunteers are also arriving from other states to participate. Sullivan calls them "an integral part" of the campaign's strategy to build a powerful grassroots turnout for the caucuses.

With Mitt Romney and fellow Texan Ron Paul in contention for the top spot, Perry, a former front-runner, is battling Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich for third place, a position that would likely be portrayed as a comeback for Perry's struggling campaign.

Anything less would make it difficult for Perry to remain a viable candidate, although he has said he would remain in the race with a fourth-place finish.

In its final pre-caucus poll, The Des Moines Register reported late Saturday that Romney led with 24 percent, followed closely by Paul at 22 percent, Santorum at 15 percent, Gingrich at 12 percent and Perry at 11 percent.

Interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Perry said he was confident that "momentum's heading in the right direction" despite the polls. In addition to the surge of reinforcements, Perry has been reaching out to voters in a statewide bus tour and has blanketed the state with more than $3 million in television ads.

"Nobody's got a better ground game," Perry said in the television interview. "We're going to be able to go forward."

Perry and his family attended morning services at the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. Afterward, he avoided public events to "work the phones" and prepare for his final round of campaign appearances today. He plans a three-town stop that will symbolically end with an evening appearance in the small town of Perry.

While he presses his message that he is the "authentic" conservative in the race, soldiers in his volunteer army will help buttress that effort by doing everything from staffing phone banks to knocking on doors.

High-profile participants in the strike force will include four Republican statewide officials from Texas -- Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Comptroller Susan Combs and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples -- and some state lawmakers.

Some state officials will speak on Perry's behalf to the media, Sullivan said. Others will go to the hundreds of precinct caucuses to try to sway votes.

On a mission

Burke, who is divorced and has seven grown children, said he was diagnosed with mesothelioma, which attacks membranes around the internal organs, by a doctor who "gave me a 10 percent chance to live three years." Now, he says, "it's been a little over two years and I get more and more tired."

But Burke didn't want to sit on the sidelines during this year's race and felt compelled to get involved, saying he believes that citizens have a responsibility to engage in politics. "I tell everybody to put down their beer and stop watching The Simpsons," he said.

Burke said he hasn't worked for the governor in state campaigns but believes that Perry is the best presidential candidate for a number of reasons, including his military service as an Air Force pilot. Burke said he rode on the bus with Perry for about 45 minutes during a recent round of campaigning.

Task force members are being urged to keep expenses under $1,000 to stay below federal requirements on in-kind donations. Still, they relish the opportunity to take part in the nation's first presidential contest.

Renda Ashley, 52, of Harlingen made the trip with her 17-year-old son, Reagan, and 15-year-old daughter, Miranda. Reagan Ashley, who says he wants to enter politics and become governor of Texas, helped raise money for the trip by printing and selling posters declaring support for "Perry Troopers in Strike Force Iowa."

He notes that he won't be able to cast his first ballot in a presidential race until 2016. "Hopefully," he said, "I'll be able to vote for Rick Perry's second term."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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