MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — If the frenetic campaign schedule ahead of him is any guide, Gov. Rick Perry is not thinking much about the moment his presidential run could come to an end. There is a nationally televised debate tonight, another one on Thursday and a blur of town hall events and meet-and-greets packed in between.
But in a candid interview Monday before a studio audience and with Republican pollster Frank Luntz, Perry sounded somewhat less certain of victory and willing, perhaps, to look beyond a campaign that started off with such hope but quickly went off the rails.
The swagger is not gone. At the start of the 11 a.m. event in Myrtle Beach, Perry called on front-runner Mitt Romney to release his federal income tax returns — something the multi-millionaire and former Massachusetts governor has refused to do.
Yet in both the tone and substance of Perry’s remarks, a humbler Texas governor emerged — one who knows that without a turnaround of biblical proportions, the South Carolina primary being held Saturday will be his Waterloo.
The most revealing moment came when Luntz asked Perry to imagine what his life would have been like had he not met and married Anita Thigpen, the “city girl” from Haskell whom he courted for 16 years before she agreed to marry him nearly three decades ago.
“She’s my best friend.” Perry said, the emotion welling up inside him as he spoke. “If I just had to walk away from all this, if she was walking with me it’d all be okay.”
The Christian faith that Perry so overtly displayed when he launched his candidacy is also sustaining him through the “stressful” and “rough-and-tumble” moments of the 2012 campaign. In earlier speeches, Perry has emphasized the importance of a certain Bible passage, Isaiah 6:8, in which a young prophet is inspired to spread his message.
On Monday the governor cited Joshua 1:9, which calls on the faithful to remain courageous in the face of adversity. It was framed in a religious context, but Perry might have been talking about the generally small crowds — often no more than 50 or so voters — that he has encountered in the barbecue joints and diners that he has visited here.
“As we go through this process and as you kind of look around and every now and then you look behind you and then the parade that you thought you were leading, it might have thinned out a little bit,” Perry told Luntz. “But that’s okay, because the one person that you need to have in the parade with you is always there.”
Perry drew criticism last year when he suggested that he was "called" by God to run for president. On Monday Perry gave a humorous explanation, befitting of a candidate now mired in the single digits, of what God did not say last summer.
"He sure didn't tell me I was going to win," the governor said.
The studio audience inside the Fresh Brewed Coffee House, packed with moms acting as a sort of Luntz focus group, responded with giggles and “awws” as the Perrys talked about their courtship and life as a married couple.
The obviously conservative crowd roared with approval when the governor vowed to shut down the U.S. Department of Education if elected president.
And a few hours later, Perry was back to his fiery old self, his voice full of energy and confidence as he told another gathering, put on by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, that liberals were trying to “whitewash the public square of all spiritual references.”
“Get the fire hose out because I’m going to put them on fire out there. You're going to have to wet down the whole crowd,” Perry yelled when he stepped up to the podium. “God and country!"