The education of David Perdue: An outsider runs for Senate

The cramped campaign RV had just emerged from a dusty side road after its second Chick-fil-A stop of the day when it disgorged David Perdue, a former Fortune 500 executive who, on this musky afternoon, was beseeching a few dozen Griffin retirees to vote for him in Tuesday’s Senate runoff.

The rain pattered outside while two camera-wielding trackers waited to pounce on a miscue within as Perdue stepped to the front of the cramped room. This isn’t how he expected to spend the tail end of his lucrative business career, and it certainly isn’t how his wife, Bonnie, expected to spend her first years as a grandma.

Since joining the race a year ago, Perdue has weathered head-slapping gaffes, spent more than $3 million out of his own pocket to power his campaign and watched as most Republican kingpins backed his rival, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston.

Yet here he is, days before his biggest political test, with analysts expecting a close race with Kingston in the rollicking GOP contest to face Democrat Michelle Nunn. That November race could help determine control of the Senate.

Perdue has learned to watch his words more carefully and adapt to the fact-checkers, reporters and rivals watching his every move. Along the way, a more confident — if never loose — candidate has emerged.

If he prevails Tuesday, he’ll credit the process — the Education of David Perdue — with preparing him for November. But that doesn’t make him any more comfortable with it.

“I’ve learned the vocabulary,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m more careful about code words. And I’m trying to better communicate so people understand what it’s all about. I’ve learned a lot about the political process. And, frankly, I’m troubled with it.”

The contradictory candidate

Perdue is, in many ways, a contradiction. He’s an avowed outsider with a first cousin, Sonny Perdue, who served two terms as this state’s chief executive. He’s a millionaire executive who campaigns as a man of the people. He’s a boardroom veteran used to analysts parsing his every word, yet words have sometimes failed him when he has tried to connect with partisan crowds.

At the core of his appeal to voters is his newcomer status and a business background. His experience as an executive for the likes of Reebok and Dollar General, he tells voters, will pay dividends for Georgia residents in Washington. And his pitch for term limits, he hopes, stamps him as the ultimate outsider who’s willing to give up the perks of Congress.

Those appeals also provide his rivals with fresh fodder. Kingston has criticized Perdue’s short tenure as the head of Pillowtex, a struggling North Carolina textile company that folded soon after he left, tossing thousands out of work. Perdue said an underfunded pension plan and a hefty bank loan made the firm’s challenges insurmountable.

And Perdue’s lack of experience in the political world — his recent voting history in Georgia only includes two GOP presidential primary votes — has his opponents casting him as a gilded executive who could betray Republicans if elected. That’s one reason most of Georgia’s political types — establishment figures and tea party partisans alike — have backed Kingston.

That tension boiled over at a debate last week when Kingston outlined an adult life spent mostly promoting conservative causes and helping to build an ascendant GOP in Georgia. What, he asked, was Perdue doing all that time?

“I was creating thousands of jobs in the real world,” came the snappish response.

A reason to run

After U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss announced last year that he would retire, Perdue consulted his cousin, the former governor, about a possible run. The two grew up together in Middle Georgia, and Sonny Perdue credits his cousin’s competitive streak to his father, a beloved basketball coach.

The veteran politician’s advice: Don’t do anything until your wife comes to you on her own and urges you to run.

About three weeks later, when the couple were at his mother-in-law’s house in Warner Robins, Bonnie Perdue saw a restlessness in her husband and, with tears in her eyes, started making plans for the campaign ahead.

“I just really had this sense come over me that David was supposed to do this,” said Bonnie Perdue, who met her husband in elementary school. “I’m a new grandmother, and this was not something I envisioned doing.”

The rigors of the campaign have lived up to the couple’s expectations. Bonnie Perdue’s glad for experience, but the nastiness of the debate jolted her consciousness.

“The hardest thing I’ve had to learn is to bite my tongue,” she said. “There have been plenty of times when I wanted to say something I didn’t.”

Her husband, too, isn’t exactly a happy warrior.

“This is not fun. I’m sorry,” David Perdue said at a recent campaign event in Jefferson — the third of nine stops for the day. “Somebody said, ‘Aren’t you having fun?’ Yeah, if I get elected. But I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could make a difference.”

Babies and broadsides

Perdue introduced himself to voters this spring with a series of ads depicting his GOP rivals in the crowded Senate primary as a gaggle of crying babies and himself as the adult in the room. Yet those images competed with a pair of gaffes that still resonate today, if more in campaign attacks than concerns from voters at his events.

A comment he made to a newspaper’s editorial board that “both” revenue and spending cuts should be considered to balance the budget led some — wrongly, he said — to worry that he was open to tax increases. And he was criticized for suggesting that Karen Handel, an opponent in the primary, wasn’t qualified for the job because she never graduated from college.

That edginess has given way to more homespun stories and one-liners at his events. At most campaign stops, he shares the story of an elderly lady in McDonough who asked whether he had ever run for office. When he told her no, he said, she immediately pledged her support. Laughter invariably ensues.

In interviews with more than a dozen participants at five different events across the state, several said they were impressed by Perdue’s background if not blown away by his presentation.

“We need new blood,” said Linda Gafner, one supporter. “Jack Kingston’s been up there for all these years, and I’ve never heard of him before now.”

Another attendee, Rock Feeman, said he was torn between the two Republicans.

“I like what Perdue has to say,” said Feeman, a real estate agent. “But I know CEOs don’t always translate as well in Congress.”

To Kingston, who has served in Congress for 22 years, Perdue is not just an outsider, but a potentially dangerous one.

“President Obama ran as an outsider,” Kingston said. “Do you really know what you’re getting with David Perdue?”

The homestretch

On a lonely road south of Atlanta, the campaign RV bottomed out again and Perdue, a Georgia Tech graduate, announced he figured out why. The wheel base, he explained, is not evenly spaced. The restless candidate then shifted his attention to a campaign mailer that depicted Kingston as the king of wasteful spending — the crown, he noted, was a little off.

To keep Perdue centered, his aides surround him with familiar faces. There’s Derrick Dickey, his press aide, puffing on an e-cigarette while thumbing out replies to reporters. Bonnie Perdue is quick with a calming word. And Alec Poitevint, a GOP heavyweight who was one of the candidate’s first supporters, is often at his side dispensing counsel.

At events and fundraisers, David Perdue speaks of championing an overhaul of the tax code, reining in the national debt and slashing wasteful spending. And he doesn’t shy away from references to his wealth, for which he makes no apologies. His tax returns show he’s made $55 million over the past 10 years.

“You’ve seen nice guys like me before, without a voting record, go up to Washington and lose themselves,” Perdue said at one stop. “Here’s why it’s not going to happen to me: I’ve been there. They’re not going to offer me anything I haven’t seen before.”

He still has his share of head-scratching moments. At a sun-splashed event the other day, he compared attendees huddled under trees to overheated bovines. And should he win Tuesday, Perdue’s camp will be the first to acknowledge more could come.

But Joe McHugh, the emcee for that event at the Griffin retirement home, urged his audience to cut Perdue some slack. His evolution as a candidate, after all, is still unfolding.

“He might screw up a little. He might slip. But we can give him a pass. He knows how to sling it,” McHugh said. “And he’s not a politician.”

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