In South Carolina, moments to remember on the GOP trail

On Thursday morning, in a Hyatt Place hotel wedged between the highway and a strip of fast-food joints in North Charleston, S.C., Texas Gov. Rick Perry flashed a thumbs-up to the assembled press and exited the national stage. While some members of Team Perry exhibited levels of strain (“Don’t touch my stuff!” a sound technician screamed at a reporter in the back of the room), other Perry staffers treated the event like a bittersweet graduation ceremony.

Catherine Frazier, a deputy press secretary for Perry’s campaign, posed for pictures with the embedded network reporters she had driven around Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The group talked about what the future held for them (Florida for the embeds, some rest back in Austin for Frazier) and wished one another luck. They reminisced about the time one of the embeds, CBS News and National Journal reporter Rebecca Kaplan, took offense when Perry suggested a paisley-patterned dress might look good on her, (“Maybe I was too harsh” she said with regret). Frazier recalled the time earlier in the week when she informed the reporters that a fuse in the Perry van had blown, so they couldn’t recharge their equipment on the road. The reporters took it in stride, she said, telling her it was fine as long as the problem was fixed by Friday.

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Watch highlights of the Republican presidential candidates' speeches after Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of the South Carolina primary. (Jan. 21)

Watch highlights of the Republican presidential candidates' speeches after Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of the South Carolina primary. (Jan. 21)

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“But Friday never came,” Frazier said.

A few minutes later, Ray Sullivan, a close adviser to Perry, came down to help reporters understand the chronology of Perry’s decision to drop out.

“I flew in with the governor last night from Greenville and he made some comments on the plane that made me curious,” Sullivan said from within the center of a scrum of reporters. “And he said, ‘I know what I’m doing, I’ve got it taken care of.’ So needless to say, that makes people in my position curious.” Then he revealed that they stopped off at Wendy’s, and as they waited in line to order hamburgers, he prodded Perry, who told him he was dropping out. Some reporters dropped off to write their stories while new ones joined, repeating the same questions as those who came before them. “What did he order at Wendy’s?” one reporter asked. “Where were you sitting at Wendy’s?” inquired another.

Sullivan later said he didn’t think there was anything strange about the presidential campaign coming to an end in a fast-food restaurant.

“Rick Perry is a very normal, down-to-earth guy, so it’s not at all surprising,” he explained. “There’s nothing terribly unusual about it.”

Frazier approached Sullivan to discuss the cost of a flight change back to Texas, and a Perry aide in cowboy boots rolled a rack full of Perry’s clothes and bags out through the lobby. Ken Herman, a reporter with the Austin American-Statesman, pursued, capturing the moment on his flip camera. When one of the bags, emblazoned with the name “Rick,” fell off the rack in the parking lot, Herman exclaimed, “There is a God, and he likes people with tiny video cameras.”

* * *

In the corner of the parking lot where Perry’s bag fell, former candidate Herman Cain’s campaign bus driver, Rhett Evans, sat behind the wheel checking the day’s itinerary.

Evans had driven the bus in from Houston a few days earlier and stayed that night in the same hotel as Perry. He had to pick Cain up at a nicer hotel for a day of events around Charleston. Before leaving, he showed off the “star car” configuration of the bus, which had leather couches, a small galley kitchen and a couple of bunk beds, and lamented the heavy driving schedule demanded by the Cain non-campaign campaign. “They squeeze you right down to what’s legal,” he said.

A few hours later, the campaign bus drove past the restaurants and antiques stores around Meeting Street in downtown Charleston, and deposited Cain, who dropped out of the race under a cloud of scandal and plummeting poll numbers, at a Southern Republican Leadership Conference event at the College of Charleston’s basketball arena. Cain waited in a curtained-off area behind the stage, while Kaplan, the reassigned Perry embed reporter, filmed Rick Santorum, who is actually running for president, try to win over the few attendees in the nearly empty arena. (“We have come down to the Low Country a lot,” Santorum said, as he stood in front of 17 cadets from the nearby Citadel. “We have been vacationing here for almost 20 years.”)

After completing his speech, Santorum stepped backstage and embraced Cain. The two laughed and joked while a university official introduced Cain, who then took the stage.

Cain talked about how his granddaughter was born in 1999, “that’s one. Nine! Nine! Nine!” he said to the few people in the stands. He built up to a crescendo in which he announced that “My unconventional endorsement is the people.” Outside, his former campaign manager, Mark Block, who gained some notoriety for smoking a cigarette in a TV commercial, was smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. He took a drag and said that since Cain had left the race, there had been a lack of excitement. “It’s boring!” he said.

The next day, Friday, Cain attended a campaign rally with satirist Stephen Colbert in Cistern Yard on the university’s quad. Nearly 5,000 people, mostly students, showed up at the event, perching on walls around the quad, hanging out of the windows of school buildings. Colbert, who is championing a Cain candidacy to emphasize the absurdities of the nominating process, stood on a stage under oak trees dripping with Spanish moss and a banner that said “Vote Cain.”

“I want you to vote for Herman Cain, because Herman Cain is me,” he said. Cain followed him onstage, pointed out Block in the crowd as “smoking man” and, to the astonishment of many people in the crowd, proceeded to give what sounded like an actual campaign speech. “Stop it!” screamed a student in the crowd.

The next morning, the day of the South Carolina primary, Cain appeared at the Courtyard Marriott, where Fox News had set up a studio. He shook some hands and chatted with conservatives in the lobby but said he had no time to talk with other reporters.

“What part of ‘I’m getting ready to do a TV hit’ don’t you understand?” said Cain, who, as a presidential candidate said he was not running for a Fox News gig. “I don’t answer spot questions on the run anymore. Those are my rules.”

* * *

About 7 p.m. on Saturday, supporters of Mitt Romney began filing into the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center for an election night rally. Romney staff directed them past a massive media filing center, where a campaign bus reading “Romney: Conservative, Businessman, Leader” sat parked in portrait lighting, and to a small room where the candidate would soon deliver his concession speech. Signs for a cash bar ($3 beer, $4 wine, $3 sodas) greeted supporters, who followed the stage directions of aides eager to fill camera frames behind the small stage in the center of the room. A woman in a pink blouse, raising her arms like a chorus conductor, led the small crowd seated on aluminum bleachers in chants of “Pre-si-dent! Rom-ney!” as flat-screen televisions showed the voting returns coming in on Fox News.

The crowd erupted as the screens showed a graphic that suggested Romney was winning with 40 percent of the vote. They didn’t seem to notice that only 2 percent of the electorate was reporting by that time, or to see the small check mark next to Gingrich’s name signifying that he had already been declared the primary’s winner.

“They are still saying Romney is the winner!” Donna Lawson, 57, screamed wildly from her spot on the bleacher. But soon the check mark generated confusion in the crowd.

“They are saying Gingrich is the guy, but we’re seeing Romney ahead,” Lawson said.

“I don’t understand that,” said Cassie Mathews, seated behind her. “Where do they get these exit polls? I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Fox News then cleared up the confusion by flashing on the screens “Fox News Projects: Gingrich Beats Romney in South Carolina.”

The woman in the pink blouse reappeared and began leading the crowd in a new chant of “Flo-ri-da!”

* * *

About a mile away from the Romney rally, Gingrich supporters packed into a Hilton ballroom for their candidate’s victory party. Among the supporters wearing American eagle T-shirts and “Newt-er Obama” buttons was Peter Westmacott, the newly appointed British ambassador to the United States. Dressed in suit and tie and accompanied by the head of the ambassador’s politics team, Scott Furssedonn, Westmacott said he had been invited by Gingrich “organizers and the handlers” to attend a private ceremony before the speech.

“My team from the embassy follows the primaries so they get to know the guys, so some of the people who are the regulars kindly invited us in,” explained Westmacott, who had arrived in Columbia that afternoon. “I arrived in Washington just last Saturday, and I did my credentials extremely quickly, thanks to the White House’s efficiency and their kindness. Since I figured that this was my first week and likely to be an important primary, I would come down with my colleague Scott and take the temperature, see what the primary’s like and get a little bit of authentic first-hand experience of the beginnings of the campaign.”

The ambassador listened as Gingrich gave a speech full of references to “Newt.org,” “Prime Minister Harper” “Saul Alinsky” and the “Port of Charleston.” (One of Gingrich’s chief supporters, Arizona congressman Trent Franks, later paused in the lobby to characterize the address as “subdued” and filled with “a lot of mechanics.”) When Gingrich mentioned President Obama in his remarks, people in the crowd screamed “He’s clueless,” and booed.

After the speech, Furssedonn introduced Westmacott to Jonathan Martin, a star reporter for Politico, who suggested that the diplomat try some barbecue, “the local delicacy.” The ambassador thanked him and continued toward the exit in a stream of Gingrich supporters, several of them talking in impassioned tones against Obama. Westmacott paused to explain that there was “a huge amount of interest back in the U.K.,” about the contest, and “I thought I should come and have a look.”

While he was loath to discuss domestic political matters, Westmacott observed that his local tabloid, the Sun, “would be pretty hard” on Gingrich given all the personal baggage but noted that “now that all the information is, as far as I can see, out there, there is no revelation to make.” Mostly, he said, he was looking forward to the campaign trail.

“I’m going down to Florida on Monday,” Westmacott said. “I’m going down to the debates.”

A few yards away, another, more local, dignitary held court in a tight blue dress and a sash that read Mrs. South Carolina 2011. Sarah Elizabeth Farra said that she had decided to back Gingrich after meeting with all of the candidates at a forum before Monday’s Myrtle Beach debate.

She said Perry was “incredibly handsome — one-on-one, he’s the nicest guy.” Romney, by contrast, was “a little too stiff, a little robotic.” As Gingrich and his wife, Callista, joined an after-party in the hotel’s Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, Farra said the surprise winner of the South Carolina primary struck her as “wise and intelligent,” as if he “literally has a little memory Rolodex, he can just pull all these facts out.” She got a good feeling from him, she said. He wasn’t “soft and fluffy” but “full-bodied and bold.”

 
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