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Perry's Southern Strategy Begins in South Carolina

Guilds Davis installs chairs in ballroom at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, where Gov. Rick Perry will announce for president Saturday.
Photo by Jay Root, Texas Tribune
Guilds Davis installs chairs in ballroom at the Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, Aug. 12, 2011, where Gov. Rick Perry will announce for president Saturday.

Republican candidates have generally looked to South Carolina as a “firewall” to make a final stand in fending off the attacks from challengers. For Rick Perry, it may be more like a launching pad.

Perry, with his wife and children at his side, will announce for president today here in the Old South, where campaign strategists think he will be hard to beat. They are betting that the Texas governor’s in-your-face conservatism, pro-business record and familiar accent will play well in South Carolina and all over the southern United States.

Perry campaign officials stress that the governor isn’t counting on one state or one region to put him over the top. He leaves for New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary, a few hours after his announcement. Then he’s off to Iowa to appear onstagealongside Michele Bachmann in her native Waterloo Sunday, before heading to a traditional “soap box” event at the Iowa State Fair (think fried butter) on Monday. He’s got several more events later in the week planned for New Hampshire.

“We are going to compete in every state,” said one senior campaign official.

Still, toward the end of next week, Perry is expected to return to South Carolina, the likely site of the first southern primary and a contest that has accurately picked the winner of the GOP presidential nomination since 1980. The fledgling Perry campaign has not released a detailed schedule, so it’s hard to say with certainty where he will or won’t actually show up more than a couple of days in advance.


Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia, said it makes sense for Perry to stake his claim to South Carolina.

“It’s better to signal immediately that he’s a southern candidate because there are so many southern delegates,” Sabato said. “It’s the only region of the country where they’ll support you just because you’re one of them. If he sweeps the South, it’s going to be difficult for [Mitt] Romney or anyone else to win.”

Perry is staging his announcement here, at the RedState blogger convention, on the same day of the highly anticipated Ames Straw Poll. The Perry campaign took some flak back in Iowa for stepping on the all media attention normally reserved for the event. More than 100 credentialed media representatives are going to try to cram into a small ballroom at the historic Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, where Perry is scheduled to speak at noon Central.

Perry aides said they meant no disrespect.

The primary calendar isn’t set yet, but South Carolina is expected to be the first southern state to hold one. Doing it early was the brainchild of Lee Atwater, the native South Carolinian known for hardball politics and dirty tricks and one of the masters at executing the GOP's southern strategy on behalf of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Atwater, who died in 1991 of brain cancer, wanted religious voters and southerners to have a bigger say in who wins the presidency. Since 1980, when Reagan won the contest, it has been the place where Republican campaigns are often won or lost.

Another Texas governor, George W. Bush, rescued his 2000 campaign in the Palmetto State. Bush had won Iowa but lost the crucial New Hampshire primary to Republican Sen. John McCain, who at that time was campaigning as a “maverick” and was leading in the polls in South Carolina.

After the loss in New Hampshire, Bush retooled his campaign message, calling himself a “reformer with results.” And in South Carolina, a ferocious and mostly under-the-radar campaign was waged against the Arizona senator. Anonymous fliers and push polls were used to suggest that his wife, Cindy, was a drug addict, and that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. (The McCains have an adopted daughter who was born in Bangladesh).

The Bush campaign denied any involvement in the dirty campaigning, but it helped his candidacy. He won the primary and it gave him the momentum he needed to go on and win the nomination.

Eight years later, it was McCain who needed South Carolina for a little boost — against former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who had won Iowa and at the time was ahead in the polls in South Carolina.

The lesson, according to Mark Tompkins, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina: GOP voters have generally supported the “establishment” candidate, even when a southerner is in the race. Huckabee, an ordained minister, had campaigned hard for evangelical voters, who are influential in the upstate areas near Greenville and Spartanburg, but less so in the coastal areas around Charleston.

“McCain’s ties to the establishment and the sense that it was his time trumped the Huckabee stuff,” Tompkins said. This year, Mitt Romney, who ran in 2008, would normally be considered the GOP’s establishment candidate, but polls show that Perry is already running a close second in a year when Republican activists have expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the current field of candidates.

GOP activists Chip and Melissa Browne, who own a real estate school in Columbia, were drawn to Perry’s Charleston announcement after hearing Monday that he would be speaking here. They both voted for Bush in 2000 and for Romney in 2008. But this year they plan on supporting Perry. Chip Browne said he thinks Perry will say things that are not “politically correct” but that need to be said.

“We like his view. We like the fact that he’s not shy about responding to the left. We like the fact that he’s not shy about his religious beliefs,” he said. “He is the main reason we’re here.”

Jay Root is a native of Liberty. He never knew any reporters growing up, and he has never taken a journalism class in his life. But somehow he got hooked on the news business. It all started when he walked into the offices of The Daily Texan, his college newspaper, during his last year at the University of Texas in 1987. He couldn't the resist the draw: it was the the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. After graduating, he took a job at a Houston chemical company and realized it wasn't for him. Soon he was applying for an unpaid internship at the Houston Post in 1990, and it turned into a full-time job that same year. He has been a reporter ever since. He has covered natural disasters, live music and Texas politics — not necessarily in that order. He was Austin bureau chief of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for a dozen years, most of them good. He also covered politics and the Legislature for The Associated Press before joining the staff of the Tribune.
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