COLUMBIA, S.C. — Rick Perry missed his first opportunity to appear on a national stage with his Republican rivals, but the absence of the presidential front-runner did not keep him out of the conversation.
The televised forum in the state that holds the first southern primary began Monday night on a programming note, saying that the Texas governor would not be able to attend because of the wildfires raging back home.
“Certainly we missed him,” said South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the main organizer of the event and a leading voice of the Tea Party movement. “But I think, again, the candidates that we had here, all of them ... would do a better job than Barack Obama.”
After the event concluded, DeMint said Perry would be invited back soon to a similar forum, where candidates take mostly scholarly questions from him and other conservative leaders in a TV studio setting.
In the meantime, a couple of the other candidates who did show up pointed out why voters should pick them and not the Texas governor. Herman Cain, a businessman making his first stab at elected office, gave a familiar attack line — used last week by Mitt Romney in San Antonio.
“I’m the only non-politician running — the only person who has never held public office, and I’m proud of it,” Cain said. “Politicians got us into this mess. We need a problem solver to get us out of this mess and I’m the only legitimate one in this race. That’s how I distinguish myself from Governor Perry, and, by the way, he’s been a career politician a long time. I’ve been a career problem-solver a long time.”
Not long after Cain spoke, Perry supporters entered a busy press room — somewhat deflated from the lack of confrontation and absence of the Texas-born front-runner — to tell reporters that a local congressman had thrown his support to the governor. Freshman U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., co-author of the so-called "cut, cap and balance" plan that has drawn Tea Party backing, said Perry had reached out to him shortly after announcing for president in Charleston in mid-August.
Mulvaney was asked about Cain’s complaint that Perry, in elective office since 1985, had served in government too long.
“I think the better measure of a leader is how open are they to reaching out to incorporating good and smart people and good and smart ideas,” Mulvaney said. “I’m more interested in the results than I am in the past history.”
When hit with the career-politician line, Perry officials also emphasize Perry’s service in the Air Force and his time working on the farm back home, before he entered the Texas Legislature in the 1980s.
Romney, Michele Bachmann and Texas Congressman Ron Paul left without taking reporters' questions.
But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has some awkward personal ties to the Texas governor, took a mild swipe at Perry. Gingrich spoke of the need for leaders “who are prepared to talk about what should be done right now” and “who actually [have] some experience in Washington” getting legislation passed.
“We tried for the last three years somebody who didn’t know what he was doing,” Gingrich said. Still, he called the governor a “very smart guy” and said all the Republicans in the race are preferable to the Democratic incumbent.
The former speaker wrote a foreword to Perry’s Washington-bashing book, Fed Up!, and had tapped two top aides to the Texas governor to run his own campaign until earlier this summer — before they quit in a mass exodus from Gingrich’s struggling campaign.
Those aides, consultant Dave Carney and campaign manager Rob Johnson, now work for Perry in those same roles.
Perry decided to bow out of the South Carolina forum to tend to wildfires that have consumed thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Central Texas. All of the candidates who met a national polling threshold of 5 percent, according to an average of opinion surveys, were invited to attend. Aides say they expect Perry to attend his first nationally televised presidential debate in California on Wednesday.
Earlier Monday, Perry attended a town hall meeting in Myrtle Beach, where he drew a standing-room-only crowd, according to the Myrtle Beach Sun News. The newspaper said there was only one “disappointing note” struck by the longest-serving governor in Texas history: his opposition to term limits.