By Christy Hoppe

When a swaggering, confident Rick Perry entered the presidential race two years ago, he was ahead in the polls and glancing over his shoulder at the field of opponents.

Now, as he rebuilds his reputation and tests if he can be competitive again, the first contestant he faces is in the mirror.

"He's going to have to spend his time proving himself to people," said Steve Grubbs, a Republican political strategist and former chairman of the Iowa state party. "The challenge is that people will be looking for major gaffes. It may not be fair. But for the time being, that seems to be his Achilles' heel."

Perry returned last week to Iowa, home of the nation's first presidential contest, in full campaign mode _ delivering speeches, meeting business leaders and shaking hands with state politicians.

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He demurred about whether he will run for president again. But what was apparent is a plan to recalibrate his message and refocus his image.

If the money can be raised and the enthusiasm generated, he wants to be ready.

If he doesn't stumble. If he can put "oops" behind him.

"You go talk about your record," Perry told The Dallas Morning News about dealing with his gaffes. "My goodness, Americans have been about people getting second and third chances."

And that's exactly what he appeared to be doing.

He spoke of Texas' economic growth. He framed a political argument that state leaders know how to govern and the competition of ideas is in red states vs. blue states. He touted Republican-led states as low-tax, job-creating engines while condemning Washington as moribund.

It is not lost that other recent Iowa visitors and possible aspirants _ Utah Sen. Mike Lee, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan _ all work in Washington.

Meanwhile, Perry was self-deprecating about his own lapses, the most famous being when he replied "oops" after being unable in a debate to name the three Cabinet agencies he would dissolve as president.

At a GOP fundraiser Thursday night, he blasted the dysfunction in Washington and said: "Our leaders have forgotten how to govern. And believe me, I know a few things about forgetting."

And despite the frigid winds outside, he found some signs of his own spring.

He received a standing ovation from the 450 attendees at the GOP fundraiser, where his keynote address blistered President Barack Obama, urged a return of power to the states and goaded Washington to "get out of the health care business; get out of the education business."

His private meetings with business leaders gained favorable reviews.

The national press showed up. It was not the large caravan of recorders and cameras of two years ago, but it was enough to announce his arrival.

As he prepares to leave the Governor's Mansion in a little more than a year, Perry is taking the steps to be ready for the next stage in a way he was not in 2011. He stars in a new ad airing on national cable TV, criticizing the Obama administration for slow job growth. And he'll speak next month in South Carolina, a key early nominating state where, like Iowa, social conservatives dominate the GOP vote.

"It's not impossible to repair his situation, but he certainly would have his work cut out for him," said University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle.

Hagle pointed to Vice President Dan Quayle becoming labeled as not very smart, culminating when he erroneously corrected a 12-year-old's spelling of potato.

"With him it was the potato thing. 'Oops' is the Rick Perry moment. It was that defining moment that crystallized what the story had been before, about whether the person was sufficiently competent," Hagle said.

If Perry makes another run for president, even small mistakes will be magnified, he said.

"He's got to make his case, but it's kind of a big maybe," Hagle said. "There can be no more 'oops' moments."

Perry is in the low single-digits of most polls on the 2016 presidential list, though polls taken so far ahead of nominating contests are often close to meaningless.

Grubbs, the political strategist, pointed out that from 1964 to the present every Republican who has won the Iowa caucuses had run before and lost, except George W. Bush in 2000.

"Some people might say Governor Perry inflicted a wound that he couldn't come back from, but I don't think history shows that," Grubbs said.

(c) 2013 The Dallas Morning News