PICKENS, S.C. — Rick Perry is pouring on the down-home charm as he seeks a campaign revival in South Carolina, betting that geographic kinship will pay off now that GOP presidential race is finally shifting to his comfort zone.
The Texas governor has settled in for two solid weeks of campaigning ahead of the Jan. 21 primary in a state that's critical for him after he suffered a disastrous finish in Iowa and all but skipped New Hampshire.
In the past few days, Perry has made a point of chowing down on grits, inspecting mounted animals like the kind he's shot back home, showing off his custom cowboy boots and letting his drawl hang out. His message: I'm one of you.
Perry left his son-of-the-South calling card everywhere he went one day this week as he and his wife, Anita, ducked into shops along a classic Main Street.
"Honey, what does this remind you of?" Perry asked her as they stood in a clothing store that sells flannel shirts and cowboy boots and has big-game trophies on the walls.
"Home," she answered.
A few doors down the couple impressed patrons at a barbecue joint by recognizing okra, a Southern specialty, on their plates.
In town after town, Perry eagerly shares that he's from tiny Paint Creek, a cotton farming outpost his dad referred to as "the big empty." The casual "yes, ma'am" and the stretched "a'' in "South Carolinaah" sound perfectly natural as he greets possible voters. He also draws a common bond between Texas and South Carolina, whose citizen soldiers fought to help Texas gain its independence from Mexico in the 1830s.
"There wouldn't be a Texas without South Carolina," he says.
His challenge is steep: He placed a distant fifth in Iowa's leadoff caucuses and didn't even bother to put up a fight in New Hampshire, where he came in last. He needs his fortunes to turn around dramatically if he has any hope of becoming the first candidate in modern nomination history to prevail in South Carolina after not winning either of the two initial contests.
Perry offered a positive outlook on the two early losses, saying in a statement Tuesday night that the race for a conservative alternative to Romney remains wide open.
"I believe, being the only non-establishment outsider in the race, the proven fiscal and social conservative and proven job creator will win the day in South Carolina," he said. "South Carolina is the next stop. I have a head start here, and it's friendly territory for a Texas governor and veteran with solid outsider credentials, the nation's best record of job creation and solid fiscal, social and tea-party conservatism."
Just a few months ago, South Carolina looked like somewhat of a lock for this Republican candidate. He used the state to formally launch his campaign in August. His military service, states' rights message and religious conservatism seemed tailor-made for the state. And Perry secured key backers quickly, including former state GOP Chairman Katon Dawson and House Speaker Bobby Harrell.
"He was incredibly popular. He was like a rock star," said Barry Wynn, a GOP luminary and mega-donor in South Carolina who backs Perry.
Now, Wynn said, people are "searching for that story line to change back to what it was. They'd love to believe again, but there's a lot of head-scratching there."
As is the case elsewhere, Perry loyalists acknowledge that the good feeling evaporated here as he stumbled through debates and slid from his temporary perch as Mitt Romney's chief competition.
For all of Perry's efforts, Southern ties don't always matter.
Consider what happened four years ago when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson competed here — and paved the way for victory by Arizona's John McCain.
For now, Perry is competing with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia to be seen as the most socially conservative alternative to Romney.
Perry doesn't hide the fact he plummeted in the race after a promising start.
"God gives us what we can't give ourselves — and that's the gift of redemption," he told a breakfast crowd at a diner. "If you watched my debate performances, it's good to get a little bit of redemption every now and then, to get a second chance."
Perry hopes voters here give him that chance and vote for him as he wields a job-creation message and Southern appeal.
The latter may be resonating. A Pickens restaurant owner was downright giddy that Perry ordered a cup of grits; she let his campaign put a Perry sign in the window.
And Glenn Brock, who runs a 54-year-old clothing store that carries the family name, got to bend the candidate's ear for a few minutes about hunting the coyote, bears, hogs and other animals on the shop's walls. He said he'll be voting for Perry a week from Saturday.
"When it was bottomed out here, I couldn't believe how much Texas was booming. They didn't even realize the recession was going on," Brock said. "If he can run the country like he did the state of Texas, the country would be a better place."
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