Running on Faith

Jamelle Bouie

Rick Perry seemed more like a preacher than a politician at a campaign stop in South Carolina Monday morning.

Anderson, South Carolina—Five months ago, when Rick Perry announced his campaign for the Republican nomination in Charleston, South Carolina, he was the hottest kid on the block. The three-term governor of America’s second-largest state, he promised a credible Tea Party alternative to the opportunistic conservatism of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

But Perry wasn’t prepared for the rigors of a presidential campaign, and it showed. His campaign stumbled through debates, and alienated potential allies with tone-deaf rhetoric on immigration, and his position on the HPV vaccine as governor of Texas.

By the end of year, his failures were a national joke and his campaign was abandoned by conservatives looking for someone to deliver them from Romney. After his fifth-place finish in Iowa, it looked as if Perry would drop out. Instead, he opted to renew his push for the nomination with an all-out campaign in South Carolina.

Like Rick Santorum, the newest conservative savior, Perry has focused his forces in the upstate of South Carolina, where hard right conservatives reign supreme. Likewise, Perry has tailored his message toward religious conservatives, and evangelicals in particular.

Indeed, if this morning’s event was any indication, Perry plans to turn his campaign into something of a revival. When South Carolina campaign director Katon Dawson introduced the governor’s wife, Anita Perry, to a small audience of early-risers at Mama Penn’s Restaurant in Anderson, South Carolina, he emphasized her status as a “Good Christian woman.”

And while the governor seemed subdued throughout his speech—a real contrast to Santorum, who was full of energy at yesterday’s events—he was most energized when describing his conversion experience in a testimonial that brought nods and murmurs of approval from the audience. “When I walked down that aisle to accept Jesus as my savior, when I was a teenager, I knew that I had the right rules to live by,” he said.

In addition to his religious praise, Perry offered his usual critique of Washington and his Republican rivals. “What we need is a part-time Congress—we need to make them go get real jobs,” said Perry, touting his plans to reform the legislative branch, “That’s how we do things in Texas, and that’s how we run a world-class economy.” Of course, a part-time Congress would be disastrous for actual legislating—the Texas legislature isn’t known for its professionalism—but that didn’t stop the audience from applauding the measure.

And in a dig at Mitt Romney—who currently leads the field in South Carolina—Perry commented on a recent bit of rhetoric from the establishment candidate. “I had to laugh when the wealthiest man to run for president said that he was worried about getting fired, I’m sure he was worried about pink slips, and whether they would run out,” he said.

To close out the event, Perry introduced Captain Dan Moran, a Marine veteran who was severely wounded in Iraq. Moran echoed Perry’s emphasis on faith, and added his own take on Romney, attacking the governor’s tenure at Bain Capital. “[Romney] has the audacity to go up on that stage and pass off as someone who has created value, when he has destroyed value,” Moran said.

As for the attendees, most weren’t eager to stay for the meet and greet. By the time Perry finished speaking to the press, the restaurant had mostly emptied. Those who stayed, however, had positive things to say about the governor. “I loved him,” said one retiree in the audience, “and I’ll vote for him if he can kick Obama’s ass out of the White House.”

Tony Shiflett, a cabinet-maker who has seen a substantial decline in his business since the recession hit, hopes that, if elected, Perry can do something about the economy. “We really need someone who isn’t anti-business or pro-union, like Obama”, he said. Others, reflecting the mood of the event, were more amenable to Perry’s God talk. “I agree with everything he said, especially on Israel, the economy, and his Christian values,” said William Wilson, a local pastor.

If Perry has a chance in the Republican primary, it depends on his performance in South Carolina. And talking to voters, one gets the impression that people like him. But that’s a far cry from supporting his bid in the primary, and if his poor showing in the polls is any indication—he currently polls at 5 percent in the state, according to the latest survey from CNN and Time magazine—Perry has a long climb ahead.

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