A Humbled Rick Perry Returns to South Carolina

The first-in-the-South primary state initially fell hard for the stumbling Texas governor -- but now, it may be slouching toward Mitt Romney instead

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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Not long ago, Rick Perry was a rock star here. Now he's an underdog.

The Texas governor announced his campaign in Charleston, S.C., in mid-August. The following week, he was greeted by over-capacity crowds as he swung through the state. They surged out the doors of restaurants and swarmed him as he walked down the street.

It was a high point for Perry nationally -- before his debate performances would reveal the real candidate to be such a pale shadow of voters' idealization. But it was especially so in the first-in-the-South primary state, where his folksy affect and Southern accent immediately endeared him. He seemed invincible, superhero-like, a deus ex machina come to rescue the disaffected GOP base from a lackluster candidate field.

Fast forward to this week, when Perry, along with the rest of those once-derided candidates, descended on the Palmetto State in advance of Saturday night's CBS/National Journal debate.

No crowds came out to see Perry in Columbia, where he took part in the capital city's Veterans Day parade. Dressed casually in jeans and his green nylon Air Force flight jacket, Perry walked the parade route alone, trailed by military jeeps.

He crisscrossed from side to side to shake spectators' hands, then broke into a jog, forcing a small bunch of reporters and cameramen to run after him. Then he jumped into a Hummer and was taken back to the parade viewing stand, where he mingled with members of the military -- safely inside his comfort zone.

Perry now stands in single digits in early-state and national polls, at risk of becoming an afterthought if he weren't instead a laughingstock. His mental lapse at Wednesday's Michigan debate, when he drew a blank on the third Cabinet department he would, according to his platform, seek to eliminate, merely highlighted the precipitous fall from grace he'd already suffered in the eyes of voters.

Perry's team is hoping to get voters to take a second look at their candidate. Slick commercials are airing in Iowa, New Hampshire and on national Fox News; glossy fliers are hitting mailboxes. In South Carolina, ads funded by a pro-Perry Super PAC are all over the airwaves. A veteran of George W. Bush's political shop, Joe Allbaugh, has been brought on board and has taken a hands-on role in the campaign.

The operation feels more nimble as a result, as seen in Thursday's game-time decision to cancel a planned day of fundraisers in Tennessee in favor of damage-control national media interviews in New York, culminating in a Top 10 list on "The Late Show with David Letterman" Thursday night. On Friday, Perry planned to spend the afternoon doing local media interviews in Columbia, the beginning of what his campaign said would be a new openness to the press.

But Perry's team takes pains to avoid the impression it is panicking, and as a result an air of denial pervades it. Neither Perry nor his staff seems to have fully recognized how bad things are, how steep a hill they'll have to climb to get a second chance. Just think: Republican primary voters would sooner give the nomination to a thrice-married former Speaker of the House at this point than turn back to Perry.

Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based Republican consultant who is not working for a presidential candidate, said Perry can't be counted out, but so far all he's done is disappoint.

"Even those people who jumped early for him are not feeling a great deal of enthusiasm," Felkel said.

The rumor around the statehouse is that Gov. Nikki Haley, a skilled politician and tea party darling, came close to endorsing Perry out of the gate. Instead, she held back, praising Perry at his announcement event but saying she wanted to see all the candidates before making a choice. Now, that looks like a wise decision. (A spokesman for Haley, Rob Godfrey, denied that she came close to backing Perry and said she planned to make a decision near the end of the year. Haley does not plan to attend the presidential debate in her state Saturday.)

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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