“Rick Perry must be back in the race,” joked Bud Kennedy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on Twitter. “He’s important enough again to draw hecklers.”

Indeed, the governor’s appearance at a coffee shop in Ames, Iowa, on Sunday morning was both crowded and contentious, with some of the, shall we say, less supportive attendees calling Perry out for his controversial “Strong” ad:

But the cold reception from some won’t stop the governor from stumping in a 42-city bus tour of the state. Alicia M. Cohn of The Hill, writes that Perry’s “new priority is retail politics in Iowa—reportedly one of his greatest strengths—rather than debates, which have repeatedly proved stumbling blocks to his campaign.” 

The Hill is the latest observer to float the possibility that Perry could again become a factor in the primary if he can make it out of Iowa. Austin-based consultant Matt Mackowiak of the Potomac Strategy Groupwhom Cohn says is part of a conservative-driven “Not Mitt Romney” movementthinks that current frontrunner Newt Gingrich will not continue to lead the pack.

“It’s a safe bet to predict Newt is going to flame out again,” Mackowiak said, though he admitted it could take time. Perry has to follow a three-step and “very narrow” path back to the first tier, according to Mackowiak: First, survive Iowa by finishing in the top four; second, win South Carolina, where the primary vote is set for Jan. 21; third, buy enough time for conservatives to coalesce around him as the anti-Romney candidate.

Cohn noted that Perry himself says losing frontrunner status has been good for him, but that Mackowiak suggests that the governor’s efforts between today and the January 3 Iowa caucuses must be “practically flawless from here on, which is a tall order for any candidate.”

Meanwhile, Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register reported that Perry called himself a “new candidate” on Iowa Pubic Television, proclaimed that he is “back in the game” physically and mentally, and acknowledged that the early days of his campaign may have been hindered by the recovery from his back surgery.

Perry even came off well in Saturday night’s ABC News/Yahoo! debate, an appearance Jay Root of the Texas Tribune called “a confident and gaffe-free performance.” (Perry was helped along, of course, by Romney’s $10,000 bet.)

“You have a fusion on your back and it takes you a while to get back on your game,” said Perry, who’s already said (since people insisted on asking) that he was only on painkillers for “probably less than” ten days after the July 1 surgery.

According to Perry the big difference was being able to get back to his running regimen six weeks ago. Nothing like a good jog to clear the mind.