TAYLORS, S.C. — If there is any venue that suits Rick Perry, it’s the town hall.
As a politician gifted with strong interpersonal skills but who has faltered in other areas as a campaigner, Perry is most comfortable at these political events that take place in the VFW halls and chain restaurants of the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
A full house greeted the former Texas governor when he blew into a Dickey’s Barbecue Pit here on Friday night.
“I had to go all the way to South Carolina to get some Texas barbecue,” he said, acknowledging the growing chain’s North Texas roots.
The crowd hung on his every word for an hourlong question-and-answer session he did with a local conservative radio host, Josh Kimbrell.
It would be hard to know from that reception that Perry is struggling to break through a crowded presidential contender field. Perry, who has yet to officially declare for the race, has barely registered in early polling and has been largely an afterthought in most media coverage of the race.
Perry shared the stage Friday with Kimbrell, as both sat on tall chairs. An open-ended question about the federal deficit turned into a sermon about fiscal morality, offshore taxation and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
"It's the reason I was so upset when the president vetoed the XL Pipeline," he said of energy reserves in Mexico and Canada. "These are our neighbors. Our No. 1 trading partner."
"Trade with them! Open up the XL Pipeline, Mr. President!"
He jumped out of his chair halfway through the nine-minute answer, and when he finally finished, the crowd broke out into applause.
“You had a Red Bull, too, didn’t you?” Kimbrell joked.
South Carolina was where Perry bet big in 2011. He announced his campaign there. Just five months later, he conceded defeat before making it to the Palmetto State’s 2012 primary.
On Friday, he met a supportive group – many of whom came already liking Perry. Republicans sat at tables decorated with small flower displays with the South Carolina and Texas flags.
It was standing room only, with well over 100 attendees. Several attendees said that the turnout was a reflection of Kimbrell’s pull among local conservatives.
But it also is a setting for Perry’s strength – connecting with voters.
"You signed up for this. Get ready for it," Perry said of questions any presidential candidate will probably be asked. "You need to be ready to answer any questions that you get asked, and hopefully have a reasonable answer for it, up to and including, ‘I don’t know’ because I haven’t met the person yet who knows the answer to everything."
Most operatives in GOP politics agree he is probably the best retail politician in the field, and so week after week, Perry attends small events where he speaks off the cuff and glad-hands before and after.
At the same time, he has rarely broken through at large candidate forums, and he had one of the most infamous debate performances in modern political history.
So the big question for Perry in this Super PAC era, where will there will likely be billions of dollars spent on television, is can Perry’s one-on-one charm put him in play?
Before the television ad wars and debates, it appears his personality is giving him the oxygen he needs to stay alive.
“We would love to see Rick Perry run,” said Sonya Rogers, who attended Friday's event. “He has the experience so I’d love to see him run.”
“I’ve moved past that,” she said. “Coming to these [town halls] help move you past that because you can see how intelligent he is.”
Her husband, Frank Rogers, concurred.
“Everybody has a bad night,” he said. “Especially when you come off of an operation like he did.
“That’s what this guy has shown: He doesn’t dwell on those weaknesses,” he added. “He knows exactly where his strengths are.”