Columbia, S.C. — Gov. Rick Perry missed Monday’s Palmetto Freedom Forum — a spirited, nationally televised discussion of constitutional questions — because of the wildfires in Texas. Yet even in absentia, Perry, a recent entry to the presidential field, loomed large, exciting the attendees, who talked up his chances. South Carolina Republicans, with their southern-tinged conservatism and evangelical spirit, view him as a top contender.
Sources close to Perry tell National Review Online that over the past month, the campaign has hustled to increase its presence in the battleground state. The governor has taken a bus tour and participated in town-hall events with local Republicans; he’s visited small-town diners and huddled with tea-party activists. Earlier Monday, before flying back to Texas, Perry joined Rep. Tim Scott, a freshman GOP congressman, in Myrtle Beach. The response there, sources say — as well as at Perry’s stops in Florence and Rock Hill — has given the governor and his senior team confidence that they can make a strong play.
Perry’s fast start has generated buzz because of the unsettled field, says Rich Bolen, the Lexington County GOP chairman. Romney underperformed here last cycle, losing to John McCain. The others, such as Jon Huntsman, who has invested heavily in the state, are not gaining. Perry will likely sweep the South Carolina primary next year, if he can sustain the early momentum, Bolen predicts.
“Perry is very organized, and he’s got a lot of big names and laypeople that are working for him,” Bolen says. “I don’t think any other candidate, other than Ron Paul, is going to contend here.” He notes that Perry’s campaign has done much of their work with little fanfare, behind the scenes. In early August, for instance, soon after Perry jumped into the race, he met privately with state GOP leaders, courting grassroots activists and elected officials.
South Carolina Republicans were further impressed by Perry’s splashy campaign announcement, which came last month in Charleston, at the RedState conference. Perry crowded his speech with references to his political sensibility, marking himself as a fellow Dixie-friendly Republican, a “true conservative.” He spoke about his values, his military service, and his support for manufacturing in right-to-work states, which has been threatened by the National Labor Relations Board. His remarks drew warm, raucous cheers from the crowd.
Katon Dawson, Perry’s state campaign chairman, says that Perry is building a large operation, betting that a South Carolina win could catapult him toward the nomination. “It’s a tremendous launching pad for anyone [running] for president,” he says. Perry’s summer organizing efforts, he adds, are already showing promise: “Right now, the enthusiasm for him on the ground is as intense as I saw it in 1979 working for Ronald Reagan.”
Poll numbers back up the enthusiasm. The latest from Public Policy Polling shows Perry surging, leading former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney 36 percent to 16 percent. Two other southern candidates, businessman Herman Cain and former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich, are wallowing in the single digits, while Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea-party star, counts only 13 percent support — and is lagging behind Perry in Iowa, too.
Beyond Dawson, a former state-party chair, Perry’s South Carolina team will likely enable him to connect with tea-party conservatives. He has been endorsed by GOP power broker David Wilkins, a former speaker of the state house and top fundraiser for George W. Bush. State agricultural commissioner Hugh Weathers, a folksy pol, is also on board, which helps Perry with the state’s rural pockets. Freshman GOP congressman Mick Mulvaney, a tea-party favorite, endorsed Perry on Monday — a huge get according to state Republicans.
Another reason Mulvaney matters is that he is part of South Carolina’s freshman Republican bloc in Congress, many of whom are considered the GOP’s rising stars. One of Perry’s top state advisers, Walter Whetsell, runs Starboard Communications, a consulting firm that aided Mulvaney’s campaign last year, along with the campaigns of Rep. Tim Scott and Rep. Jeff Duncan, a pair of likeminded lawmakers. Those personal, political, and ideological connections between state consultants and GOP leaders will help Perry as Republicans mull endorsements.
Gov. Nikki Haley, the state’s first-term executive, is one politician the Perry camp sees as a potential supporter. She penned an op-ed about fiscal issues in the Washington Post with Perry in July. The relationship between the pair is reportedly friendly, and the two share a politics grounded in pro-business, growth-oriented policies. She has hinted that she likes what she hears, calling the timing of his late-summer announcement “brilliant.” But nothing is guaranteed, or expected.
Of course, the big fish every campaign wants to catch is Sen. Jim DeMint, a nationally respected conservative and Republican kingmaker. He tells NRO that he is keeping his powder dry, perhaps until January, but is interested in learning more about Perry. He shrugs off Perry’s absence at his forum, saying Perry pledged to connect with him soon. “He just committed to spend the extra time to make up for [his last-minute absence],” DeMint tells me.
Perry’s campaign thinks that South Carolina will function as a firewall of sorts for his candidacy. Even if Michele Bachmann catches fire and wins the Iowa caucuses, and Mitt Romney takes the New Hampshire primary, South Carolina, his aides hope, will be Perry country. Credible performances by Perry in previous primaries, coupled with a win in the first southern primary, may be the key to knocking the wind out of Romney’s sails and curbing tea-party competitors.
Expect Perry, who is known for his retail politics, to continue to make waves in Charleston and Greenville as the primary approaches. “The formula is a lot of substance, but your personality matters a lot,” DeMint says, reflecting on what it takes to win in South Carolina. “You need to present a clear message, telling like it is, even if everyone doesn’t agree with you.” For Perry, his South Carolina confidants say, that will not be a problem.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.