WALTERBORO, S.C. — It was exactly five months ago that Rick Perry, with his trademark swagger and expectations as big as the state he governs, launched his presidential campaign at the historic Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, S.C.
The cradle of the old Confederacy seemed like a perfect match for the governor, the states’ rights-loving cotton farmer from Paint Creek, Texas, a southerner with rugged good looks and a bottomless pit of bureaucrat-skewering campaign lines.
“He talks like us,” one of his top supporters likes to say.
Now, as Perry prepares to roll back into Charleston this evening in the final stretch of his campaign here, those heady days following the Aug. 13 launch stand out as a stark reminder of how far he has fallen. Back then, Perry was the front-runner, and he had lined up an impressive campaign team here that included pros from George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 campaign teams, including Katon Dawson, ex-chairman of the state Republican Party, and former South Carolina House Speaker David Wilkins.
They are sticking with Perry even though he’s scraping the bottom of the GOP field right now. But cracks are beginning to appear.
A high-profile supporter defected this week to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and winner of the first two 2012 contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Barry Wynn, an investment fund manager and top Republican donor, told The Associated Press he jumped ship because he couldn’t stomach Perry’s populist attacks on Romney.
As of Thursday, Perry had quit talking about Romney’s former corporate takeover firm, Bain Capital, which practiced what the governor had called “vulture capitalism.” But the public outcries from top conservative pundits — including Rush Limbaugh, who found the remarks comparable to a Fidel Castro tirade — have undercut Perry at a time when he can least afford it.
Dawson, a smooth-talking auto parts distributor who oozes South Carolina charm, said Wynn had made the decision to go with the “establishment candidate,” and he predicted Perry would start moving up in the polls over the next few days.
“My choice was to go with a full-throated conservative,” Dawson said. “I’m proud to be with a Texan.”
Two nationally televised debates, one scheduled for Monday and the other for next Thursday, will put the spotlight on the high-stakes South Carolina primary, which has accurately picked the Republican nominee since Ronald Reagan won it in 1980.
When Perry works voters one on one, it’s easy to see why he once led the field in the Palmetto State. At Shealy’s restaurant in Leesville on Tuesday night, Perry greeted each voter who stood in line to see him in the cramped room where he spoke. Sometimes he hugged voters, and he nearly always found some nugget of common ground for a short conversation.
He then worked the tables in the main dining rooms, where patrons who didn’t go see Perry in the adjacent dining hall still got a taste of the Texas governor, like it or not. Before he left, Perry slipped over to the buffet line and ordered fried chicken livers to go.
“He’s not from Washington,” said West Columbia truck driver Steve Price when asked why he supports Perry. Price predicted the governor would pull off an upset when the first southern primary is held a week from Saturday.
“Everybody hasn’t voted yet,” Price said. “These polls they talk about, that’s just a few people here and there. The 21stwill tell.”
Just as often, though, the voters who turn up at Perry’s rallies acknowledge he faces long odds in a state that his top campaign honchos once thought was in the bag. A comeback at this point would be nothing short of a political miracle.
“He’s going to have to work hard,” said Gene Bustard, a retired Christian bookstore owner who saw Perry speak at Stax’s Original Restaurant in Greenville. “He’s got a good story, but I don’t know if he has the momentum or the time.”
Some voters are surprised that Perry’s southern roots and record as the long-serving governor of Texas haven’t returned him to top-tier status.
“I’ve supported him from day one,” said retired information technology specialist Claude Chevalier, who saw Perry speak at Lizard’s Thicket in Lexington. “I can’t figure out why he didn’t catch on.”
Mark Tompkins, a University of South Carolina political science professor, said Perry could still make up ground if he can persuade voters to overlook his past gaffes and give him that “second wind” he says he wants from the Jan. 21 primary.
In the meantime, he said Perry is still paying for the mistakes made on the national stage.
“The debates, and resulting buzz, seem to be the main factor,” Tompkins said. “He was an unknown to many folks, and he defined himself by his own shortcomings.”
Perry, who has never lost an election, hasn’t let sagging poll numbers and naysayers stop him from giving it his best shot. He has embarked on a grueling series of campaign appearances, staging town halls, meet-and-greets and Main Street walks in what will be his longest uninterrupted stretch of campaigning — two weeks on the road without returning home — since he began the journey this summer.
Perry may have inadvertently crystallized the underlying theme of his presidential odyssey when he walked into a Walterboro gift shop Thursday afternoon and was told there were no stuffed black Labradors in stock.
“Man, I’m a day late and a dollar short,” Perry said. “Story of my life.”