JEFFERSON, Iowa — 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.
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.
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."
"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.