Texas Gov. Rick Perry has grabbed frontrunner status in South Carolina, ending several months of what had been a muddled race in this key Republican presidential primary state.
Perry launched his campaign just over a week ago in Charleston, electrifying South Carolina conservatives who have been hungering for a candidate with Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s fire who they also deem electable and experienced. And while Republicans in the Palmetto State caution that Perry has months of vetting ahead of him and that the contest is still up for grabs, there is a general consensus that the late-entering Texas governor has the inside track.
“Perry has definitely been a game-changer,” said Barry Wynn, a Spartanburg businessman and former state GOP chairman who is aligned with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). “I think voters here had their heads telling them to be for [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney but their hearts were somewhere else. Now they can get their head and heart at the same point, and that creates more passion and energy.”
Following Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour’s surprise exit from the presidential race in late April, the contest had lacked a natural frontrunner capable of exciting South Carolina’s conservative though philosophically diverse Republican electorate. Perry, a Southern governor with a conservative record and personal charisma, has filled that void, at least in the short term.
The atmosphere surrounding Perry’s announcement speech in Charleston on Aug. 13 was “electric,” according to Spartanburg County GOP Chairwoman LaDonna Ryggs, who attended the event. More about Perry’s presumed frontrunner status could be known this week, following a scheduled weekend swing through the state that was set to include stops in Columbia, Greenville and Rock Hill. On Saturday, Perry scored an endorsement from the former South Carolina state Speaker David Wilkins.
But Romney and Bachmann are still described as having an excellent chance to win the South Carolina primary, which has a habit of its choice becoming the eventual Republican presidential nominee. Ryggs said the Labor Day candidate forum being organized by DeMint and other top Palmetto State GOP operatives could go a long way toward solidifying the first- and second-tier candidates for the balance of the campaign.
“As of today, Bachmann and Perry are the gold standard right now in South Carolina,” Ryggs said. “But I think [the Labor Day candidate forum] is very crucial because a lot of people are going to that and a lot of people are waiting to see what DeMint does.”
DeMint, popular among tea party conservatives in South Carolina and nationally, is purposely withholding any presidential endorsement until at least following his candidate forum. The Senator and those close to him, including Wynn, have loosely formed the “Keep Your Powder Dry Caucus,” hoping that their initial neutrality might make for a more competitive primary. DeMint backed Romney in 2008, and the two are said to maintain a close personal relationship.