Fort Mill, S.C. – While his competitors for the GOP presidential nomination campaigned in New Hampshire on the day of that state’s primary Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was already looking south. Despite polls that show his support in South Carolina dwindling to single digits, far lower than front-runner Mitt Romney, Perry hopes his message will catch on between now and the Jan. 21 primary in this conservative state.
To do it, he’ll have to move past not only Romney, but a surging Rick Santorum, who’s spent more time on the ground here than any other candidate, as well as Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. He might need some help from the Almighty, whom Perry wasn’t shy about invoking, whether it was mentioning the vacation Bible schools of his youth, the “faith, family and friends” at the core of his upbringing or the time he “gave [his] life to Jesus Christ” at 14 years of age.
After a morning stop in Rock Hill, Perry spent an hour or so speaking and answering questions at Sun City Carolina Lakes, an active, over-55 community, where the available 200 seats were filled. Perry had help: his wife, Anita Perry, and U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney. Mulvaney may not have the star power of Romney supporter Gov. Nikki Haley, but he is a tea party hero for his 2010 defeat of longtime Democratic incumbent John Spratt
Rather than run away from the poor debate performances that knocked Perry from his early front-runner perch, Mulvaney highlighted, then dismissed them. The Perry of those debates “is not the man who has run Texas for 11 years,” Mulvaney said. He touted Perry’s jobs record in Texas and said he has the “guts” and the “spine” to beat Barack Obama and make tough budget cuts in Washington. “The nation doesn’t tell us who can be elected president,” Mulvaney said, reminding the seniors who vote that South Carolina has picked the GOP nominee every election year since it selected Ronald Reagan in the 1980 primary.
George Baker, 62, a former engineering manager who retired to Sun City from western New York four years ago, sympathized with that line of attack. Baker, a Navy veteran who hasn’t made up his mind about whom to vote for yet, thinks the media made too much of Perry’s debate gaffes. “Did he screw up? Yes. But we all screw up. We’re all human.” Baker doesn’t trust Romney – “he’s too liberal for me,” he said—though he prefers any Republican to Obama, who he said he believes “is trying to destroy this country” with too much regulation and spending.
To have “a future worth having,” Perry said the country needs to add a balanced budget amendment in the Constitution and make Congress a part-time body. Perry’s calls for lower taxes and fewer regulations on businesses segued into his criticism of Romney’s business dealings at Bain Capital, which affected local companies in Gaffney and Georgetown, S.C. He questioned Bain’s ethics and compared its behavior to “vultures” who are “waiting for the company to get sick, and then they swoop in; they eat the carcass.” (Romney’s supporters have called this an attack on free enterprise. Even “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” has pointed out the irony of Republicans finding fault with Bain’s practices—criticism from “the 99 percent of the 1 percent,” Stewart called the tactic.)
Perry seemed more comfortable when he connected the culture of his home state to that of the state where he is making his electoral stand. He recalled the South Carolina origins of William B. Travis, the Texas commander who died at the Battle of the Alamo. “This isn’t our Alamo; this is our San Jacinto,” Perry said, ending on the battle in which Texans defeated Santa Anna rather than on the loss that preceded it. “Help is on the way for the people of the United States.”
“South Carolinians and Texans are a lot alike. We’re both in the South; we’re both conservative,” Anita Perry said after her husband’s speech. “South Carolina has been good to us and we’re working hard.”
Jan Smith of Lake Wylie, S.C., said, “I’m impressed.” She’s still shopping for a candidate and said “Christian principles” are important to her. Luke and Betty Warfield were more solid in their support. The Sun City residents originally from Raleigh, N.C., said they would vote for Perry because he is “a man of character.” What sold Betty Warfield was a speech he gave at Liberty University that she heard on the Internet. “A lot of people say they’re Christian. It was in his heart,” she said. “The Holy Spirit knows.”
Though he campaigned hard among religious conservatives in South Carolina four years ago, Mike Huckabee was defeated by John McCain. That doesn’t stop the Warfields from believing that Perry was called by God to run for president.
Arriving early and staying late in a state more to his liking than New Hampshire, Perry must be praying that the Lord and South Carolina aren’t finished with him yet.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3.