Rick Perry hoping for a campaign revival in South Carolina

January 14, 2012

After 153 days, millions of dollars, the swagger of first place and the steady, awkward decline into fifth, Rick Perry’s presidential bid came down to a lonely stroll Thursday along Main Street in the town of Walterboro.

Having run out of hands to shake, Perry stopped for a moment in front of an antiques shop. He looked through the window at a display of crystal. Then, seeing a woman inside, the Texas governor began smiling and waving at her. The woman, seemingly startled, stared back at the brown-haired man on the other side of the glass, surrounded by a cluster of reporters.

“She’s going, ‘What are all those people doing out there?!’ ” Perry said on a day that became ever more aimless as the hours lapsed on.

It had all begun so differently back in August, when the square-shouldered Texan, sharp in a suit and bright orange tie, bounded out of his big bus into the Charleston sunshine and announced that he was running for president.

“Howdy,” he said to the cheering crowd, telling the story of an ambitious son of cotton farmers who became governor of the 13th-largest economy in the world. He grinned with all the confidence of a man who had never lost an election and was soaring to the top of the Republican field.

Then came a clumsy debate performance in September and revelations about a family hunting camp with a racially charged name in October. Then in November, Perry froze — the “oops” debate when he forgot the name of the third federal agency he would abolish. And on Jan. 3, Perry finished next to last in Iowa. In a halting speech afterward, he shared a letter from a supporter.

“Basically I want you to know that you matter,” Perry read as his wife nodded and patted his back.

He was going home to Texas to reassess, he said, and with that, a presidential campaign that pundits had started calling one of the most mismanaged in recent history seemed to be over.

Except that the very next day, Perry tweeted a photograph of himself in a black spandex running outfit. He was back, he said. He was pressing on to South Carolina.

And so, here he was on an overcast Thursday morning, beginning a day of appearances by walking into Lizard’s Thicket restaurant and a kind of political and personal netherworld — his poll numbers in the single digits, his confidence challenged, his campaign lingering in some strange place between the last throes of death and the dim possibility of revival.

A warm and smiling breakfast crowd of 27 people greeted him, a number that included five children and two of Perry’s financial backers who said they had flown in from Houston to offer moral support. Local campaign workers had taped up a few Perry for President posters, and outside, a row of Perry signs in a grassy median were twinned with ones for a town council candidate.

On day 153, Perry wore pleated gray pants, a blue fleece sweater and thick-soled orthopedic shoes. His hair, famously brown-looking on TV, was in reality feathered with gray. His stature, famously rugged-looking on TV, seemed in person a bit less so.

He waved and nodded at the diners, and as his state campaign chairman introduced him, he squeezed into a booth with a young couple and their baby girl.

“Hi, I’m Rick Perry,” he said to them quietly, reaching out his hand.

Those who know Perry make two contradictory points about him: that he relishes tough political fights and that his biggest Texas supporters had to talk him into this one. And although vowing to battle on — and launching aggressive attacks against GOP front-runner Mitt Romney as a “vulture capitalist” — Perry has also told people that he never had a “lifelong ambition” to be president.

As his state chairman went on at Lizard’s, Perry cooed at the baby girl in the booth. He gave a thumbs up to a man across the dining room and returned his attention to the baby.

“He is a man of faith,” the campaign chairman said as Perry clapped quietly at her and she laughed and clapped back. “Governor Rick Perry!”

He took the microphone in his right hand, which slightly trembled, and began a version of his standard stump speech. Grew up in a Paint Creek, Tex., a place with one school and two churches, Baptist or Methodist, your choice. Texas A&M. Air Force. The wider world — “kind of went from pedestrian speed to Mach 1 overnight,” Perry said in his Southern drawl, and people smiled.

He gestured with his left hand, the one bearing the class ring of a college famous for its chin-up, fight-on spirit. And when he delivered his applause lines about a part-time Congress or doing away with the IRS as we know it, he closed the hand into a fist, tucking his thumb inside.

“So if you’ll have my back on the 21st, I’ll have your back in Washington, D.C.,” Perry concluded and then spent a while shaking hands with sympathetic supporters such as Eilene Folger, a retiree who said she switched to Perry precisely because of his fumbles, which she called “just so human, so natural, so real.”

Soon, he was heading south to Orangeburg. He had four more events scheduled this day.

Stop two: Dukes Bar-B-Q, red-checkered tablecloths, a crowd of about 50, including a conspiracy theorist, an AARP contingent and the two financial backers. About noon, the gold-colored SUV pulled up, tires crunching on gravel.

“How are ya? I’m Rick Perry,” Perry said to the locals, heading inside. He shook hands and patted shoulders and said “howdy” and “yes, sir, how are you” with the easy charm that helped propel his political career.

And for a moment, there was a glimmer of energy inside Dukes.

Perry, his right hand no longer trembling, gave the speech. Paint Creek. Air Force. Wider world. But somewhere between “I love capitalism” and “I’ll have your back,” a loud phone rang, and one of the fluorescent lights went out, and when no one from the campaign did anything, a waitress jogged across the room to switch it on again.

As Perry left, Gwynette Davis, a supporter, patted his back.

“We’re praying for you,” she said.

Stop three: A small knot of clapping people greeted Perry in downtown Summerville, walked with him about a block and then drifted away. Perry stepped into the muffled quiet of a Century 21 office. He leaned on a counter.

“How’s your business? A pretty little town like this,” he said to an agent, and they talked over the low chatter of a TV tuned to CNN showing a segment on Romney.

“I’ll give you an example — bush beans,” the agent went on, explaining the cost of basic food staples.

There was a reception with shrimp, chips and dip next door at Murphy Law Firm, but besides an elderly veteran, no one was there to receive Perry.

“You want to give a little stump speech or something?” a young campaign worker asked him, but Perry did not.

Stop four: There are sprawling trees lining the streets of Walterboro, their limbs dripping with Spanish moss, and as the sun lowered, it cast a golden glow.

Perry shook some hands and strolled down the sidewalk. Aside from the official campaign contingent, he was essentially alone.

He ducked inside Old Bank Christmas & Gifts, wandering past figurines of carolers frozen mid-song and horses mid-gallop.

He stopped in Clarity Spa, where three beauticians said hello.

He walked into a cavernous antiques shop.

“Hi, I’m Rick Perry,” he said to the only person inside, co-owner Jorge Ruiz, an undecided, and wandered deeper into the dark space.

The warm, crooning voice of Michael Buble sang “somewhere in my youth” as Perry walked past a stuffed deer.

It was unclear where he was going, or whether there was a plan.

He walked past antique bird cages and old maps and kept on, reporters and cameras following him. He reached the back of the store.

Perry stopped. He looked at an old flag. He asked Ruiz whether he had any gold-star flags, the ones given to mothers who lost sons in war.

“We don’t,” Ruiz said, and thanked him for coming.

Perry walked back outside and stopped at the antiques shop with the crystals in the window. He saw the lone woman inside. He waved at her and smiled and kept waving.

Last stop: At Fat Jack’s Grillin’ and Chillin’ restaurant, Perry took the microphone and addressed a small dining area of 24 people. His financial backers were on their BlackBerrys.

“We need a Congress, I would suggest to you, that has two limitations,” he said at one point, while in the back, a woman said to a waitress, “Do you have crinkly fries?”

From where he stood, Perry could see the door, and a sketch of a lighthouse at sunset.

“I want to share with you one thing I love about coming to South Carolina,” Perry concluded in his shortest stump speech of the day, naming several South Carolinians who fought with Texans against Mexico.

“I want to thank you for helping with our freedom,” Perry said, and soon, he had his, at least for now.

He skipped the usual handshakes and sped off, just as a woman was crossing the half-empty parking lot to see him.

“Is he gone?” she asked.

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