Without mentioning names, Perry made an appeal to Tea Party activists at the annual meeting of the group founded by billionaires Charles and David Koch that he is an authentic conservative—with a record in Texas to back it up—while fellow governors in the Republican race have taken unpopular party positions or flip-flopped on issues including abortion and the Common Core education standards.
"My fellow Republicans, we don’t have to settle for 11th hour campaign conversions to conservatism,'' Perry told the 3,600 attendees at Americans for Prosperity's annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday. "I've been with you every step of the way.''
With Perry trying to keep his campaign afloat, the two-day "Defending the American Dream Summit'' showcased the struggle of Republican candidates attempting to stand out from a crowded field dominated by Trump, while also offering a glimpse of the party's challenge to satisfy its core conservative voters and still have broad enough appeal to win a general election.
In an impassioned speech, Perry said that while he won't "trade freedom for federal money,'' other governors have accepted Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul to bring federal dollars back to their states despite the national debt. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio have accepted the expansion, but Perry's most obvious target was Kasich.
"The idea that Washington has this federal pot of Ohio Medicaid money that would have gone to some other state is just nonsense,'' Perry said. "That money doesn’t come from an endless vault of money in Washington. It is borrowed from bankers in China and children in Cleveland and Columbus.''
Perry also made an apparent jab at Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker when he said it should trouble voters when a candidate "says he's pro-life but runs television ads saying abortion is a decision between a woman and her doctor.'' Walker aired such an ad during his re-election campaign last year.
The Texas governor said to be wary when candidates "rail against Common Core on the campaign trail but supported it in the capital,'' an apparent reference to the change in position by Christie and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in the face of strong conservative opposition.
Perry said while he's the only candidate with experience defending the U.S. border from illegal immigration, other candidates "want to talk a good game on border security and offer simplistic solutions like, 'Let's build a wall.'''
Perry, who was edged out by Kasich for the 10th and final spot in the first Republican presidential debate on Aug. 6 in Cleveland, reportedly stopped paying some of his campaign staff earlier this month because of a lack of funds. The former Texas governor stood at just 1 percent in a recent CNN poll of likely Republican Iowa caucus participants, prompting questions about whether he'll make it to the Feb. 1 voting in the Hawkeye State.
On Saturday, Kasich's campaign pushed back, saying that while Perry is criticizing using federal dollars to improve people's health, he previously has defended taking billions of dollars under Obama's federal stimulus program to fill state budget holes.
The Ohio governor was not invited to the Americans for Prosperity event in his own state, and it was clear from the forum that his support for Medicaid expansion and failure to pursue a so-called right-to-work law were among the reasons why.
President Tim Phillips called the expansion "immoral'' during a speech on Friday, and one of the breakout sessions for activists was "Sick yet?' Obamacare 2.0—An Update on How Obamacare and its Medicaid Expansion is Affecting You.''
Another session was devoted to right-to-work laws, which Kasich has not sought while neighboring Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have. Kasich has said there's no need for it with labor peace in Ohio.
"There's one major impediment to right to work in this state, and his name is Governor John Kasich,'' Vincent Vernuccio of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan said during a session, drawing a smattering of applause from activists.
Kasich has made the case that Republicans have allowed themselves to be "put in a box'' on issues, and that he has the right to define what it means to be a conservative—including helping the disadvantaged.
That tension was on display at the summit, where Jindal, former Governor Jeb Bush, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio also spoke. The network overseen by the Koch brothers has pledged to spend $889 million on its agenda during the 2016 election cycle.
Besides Perry's call to support a conservative who hasn’t flip-flopped, Jindal made the case to the activists that the party won't win by moving toward the political center. He singled out Bush.
"You may have heard Jeb Bush say that we've got to be willing to lose the primary in order to win the general election,'' Jindal said, drawing boos. "That is the establishment telling us, 'Conservatives hide your beliefs, hide your principles.''
While Bush defended his conservative record of cutting taxes and improving education during his two terms as governor, he also urged the party to broaden its base by reaching out to blacks, Latinos and "across the spectrum of life.''
"Conservatives will win when we campaign everywhere, when we campaign with heart,'' Bush said in his speech on Friday, which drew mostly polite applause compared with the rousing reception that Tea Party favorite Cruz received.
—John McCormick contributed to this article.