FLORENCE, S.C. – Before the man of the hour arrived, instructions went out to the more than 300 people jammed around tables, standing on booths and craning to see past the hot breakfast buffet at Bazen’s Family Restaurant here.
He doesn’t like to be called Governor Perry, so call him Rick.
And that they did. The newly minted presidential candidate cheerfully swept into South Carolina on Friday morning and was greeted like a heartthrob by a fervent crowd that most of his Republican rivals could only hope to assemble on the trail.
People screamed out, “Hi, Rick,” they gave him baseballs to autograph and a newborn grabbed hold of his tie and wouldn’t let go.
The Texas governor moved comfortably from table to table, with his “Howdy” and “Hi, y’all” greetings, and then he did what he came to do: He tore into President Obama.
“The president’s been on a jobs tour,” Perry said. “As a matter of fact, we crossed paths when we were in the state of Iowa. He had his big ol’ bus – his big ol’ 1.2 million-dollar bus, made in Canada – but, anyway, the real issue is our president’s out there and he goes on a jobs tour. This is the president of the United States that has killed more jobs in America than I think any president… the only job he cares about is the one he’s got.”
Perry said his campaign is about “cuttin’ taxes, cuttin’ regulations and cuttin’ litigation.” In one of his biggest applause lines, Perry said: “I am a pro-business governor and I don’t make any apologies to anybody about it. I’m going to be a pro-business president and I won’t make any apologies about it.”
South Carolina’s GOP primary, the first in the South, is seen as key to Perry’s hopes of winning the presidential nomination. He is aggressively building a campaign organization here, hiring leading political strategists in the state and assembling a large field staff.
Evangelical Christians make up a sizeable portion of the state’s Republican primary electorate, and Perry, who laces his comments with references to his faith, is expected to do well among those voters. The conservative tea party movement also has a strong presence. There’s no clear frontrunner in the primary yet, and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has also been making a push here.
While Perry served up red meat to a clearly partisan crowd and emphasized his down-home twang here Friday, his remarks were short on specifics. He carefully avoided making any comments that would spark another a furor, following his remarks Monday night suggesting Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be committing treason by printing more currency.
Perry did not take questions from reporters for the second day in a row. Asked whether he would answer questions from the media, Perry simply patted one reporter on his shoulder and said, “Thanks, brother.”
At a visit to Carolinas Hospital System, Perry assailed Obama’s health-care law, saying it’s a “big national health-care plan coming at us like a freight train.”
In his remarks before a room full of hospital workers, Perry said: “If Texas were another country – you understand?” The crowd erupted in laughter, perhaps recalling Perry’s suggestion that Texas secede from the union.
“If Texas were a standalone entity, we would be somewhere I think around the 11th largest economy in the world,” Perry said. “We’re about the same size of Russia from an economic standpoint. We’re not inconsequential.”
He noted that since 2009, Texas has created 40 percent of the nation’s net new jobs.
The Texas governor seems to be reveling in what has been a grueling week on the campaign trail. On Friday alone, he has at least five scheduled events, including a luncheon speech to the South Carolina Republican Party in Columbia, a walking tour of downtown Greenville and a fundraising dinner there.
In the speech in Columbia, Perry again lashed into Obama over what he termed “an economic disaster.”
“The president this week, he said that we had reversed the recession but that over the last six months we’ve just had a run of bad luck,” Perry said. “Our economic plan shouldn’t count on luck. It should depend on some sound economic principles. ...We don’t need an excuse-maker as the commander in chief who assigns blame instead of taking responsibility. We don’t need a government solution. We need to get the government out of the way and let the private sector do what the private sector does best.”
Speaking before about 250 people at a fundraiser for the South Carolina Republican Party, Perry framed the 2012 contest: “The central issue of this election is going to be an administration that believes Washington must be our caretaker and the people who want Washington to only care for their constitutional responsibilities.”
Earlier, at Bazen’s, Perry told his audience about his visit Monday to the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines.
“A guy gave me a corney dog and it looked beautiful. I took a big ol’ bite of it and I thought it kind of has an odd taste. He said, ‘It’s a vegetarian one. How do you like it, sir?’” Perry recalled, drawing laughs from an audience that apparently doesn’t care for veggie anything let alone corn dogs. Perry added that he ate “boiled egg on a stick and finished up with pork chop on a stick, so I got my protein that day.”
Letty Moore Hall, 65, who met the governor here said she decided to vote for Perry based on his handshake.
“He’s very personable, very warm and very sincere,” she said. “You can tell that when you shake a man’s hand. He has a very firm handshake. And he’s humble.”
Perry wrapped up his visit with a plea for support. “I’m a Texas A&M graduate. We played the [University of South Carolina] Gamecocks in the first game of the College World Series. That didn’t work out. It was great competition, but it was down to the bottom of the ninth inning, four to four, and the Gamecocks came through.
“I’ll tell you what,” Perry added, “when it gets down to the bottom of the ninth inning in this primary, I want South Carolina to come through for me.”