A Humbled Rick Perry Returns to South Carolina

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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.)

Haley backed Romney four years ago, when she was still a state representative and the former Massachusetts governor was building a massive operation in the state, complete with big-time consultants and an extensive ground game. He came in fourth, the fatal blow that sealed his chances. This time, Romney has mostly stayed away, and many of his former backers -- like Sen. Jim DeMint, the local conservative icon -- are neutral instead.

Felkel and other South Carolina observers said the race in the state seems extraordinarily volatile at the moment. "It's hard to believe I'm about to say this," he said. "But Romney is in pretty good shape in South Carolina."

That's certainly the view of state Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Romney's South Carolina chairman. Loftis seems like an unlikely Romney supporter: a Southern Baptist evangelical allied with the tea party who ousted a Republican incumbent in his first bid for public office. "I am from the right wing of the party," Loftis, an effusive former businessman with a meaty face, said in an interview in his state office. "So a lot of people were surprised" when he came out for Romney in August.

But as other contenders continue to fade, he said, "Every day, people call me up and say, 'OK. I get it now.'" Loftis won't name names, but he says, "There are a lot of people who came out for Rick Perry who are behind Mitt Romney now." He doesn't mind that Romney is their last choice, as long as that's where they end up.

"I give Romney a chance here," said Neal Thigpen, a retired Francis Marion University political scientist and longtime Republican activist. It will depend on what kind of momentum he gets out of Iowa and New Hampshire, he added. "He's sitting in a pretty good spot -- he's got all these people, the anti-Romneys, all divided up." Perry, in Thigpen's estimation, is "dead meat."

But David Wilkins, a top South Carolina Perry supporter, is keeping hope alive. Wilkins is Republican royalty -- a Greenville-based lawyer, he served as U.S. ambassador to Canada under George W. Bush after chairing Bush's South Carolina campaigns. He jumped on board with Perry within a week of Perry's announcement, and says he has never regretted it, despite the ups and down of the campaign thus far.

Wilkins' choice of Perry was a gut-level decision, he said in an interview.

"I met with him, I met with his wife, and I connected with him," Wilkins said. "I thought he was genuine. I had an hour-long conversation with him, and based on that, plus researching his record, I was sold."

Wilkins acknowledges that Perry has failed to live up to the high early expectations. But he has handled the fallout from his "oops" moment well, Wilkins said, and now has a chance at a "fresh start."

Unlike the other early primary states, Wilkins said, South Carolina is a solidly Republican state, and a conservative Republican state at that.

"Right now, you have a number of candidates splitting the base," he said. "But Gov. Perry's got staying power and Gov. Romney has staying power. Whether or not anybody else has staying power, I don't know."

Image credit: Getty Images/Richard Ellis

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

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