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BLYTHEWOOD, S.C.—Rick Perry played up his Southern roots and his support from members of the military on Thursday as he tried to convince South Carolina voters to help him win in the state that he's referred to as his personal "Alamo."
Perry has kept the Texas history references coming on the trail, mentioning that William B. Travis (the commander at the Alamo) came from Saluda, South Carolina, in his stump speeches.
"Without South Carolina, there wouldn't be a Texas," he says to the modest crowds that have come out to see him in small-town diners and restaurants this week.
Perry has cast himself as the candidate most supportive of the Pentagon, criticizing President Barack Obama for advocating for $1 trillion in defense spending cuts. He touts endorsements from Medal of Honor winner Dakota Meyer and other veterans and active-duty military personnel. Perry credits his own persistence in the race with his experience in the Air Force. "One of the reasons we're here in South Carolina is we don't quit," he said. "We've got the heart of a warrior."
The governor garnered less than 1 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, and a recent Insider Advantage poll shows that only 5 percent of South Carolina voters are planning to vote for him, despite his enormous ad buys and his dedication to retail campaigning in the state. Several gaffes early on in debates and his announcement that he was going back to Texas to pray about what to do with his campaign after a poor showing in Iowa have eaten into his early success in public opinion polls.
Some voters are still drawn to his message, and hope it's not too late for him to win. Cathi Gladden, who says she is an independent, approached Perry after his speech at the Lizard's Thicket diner in Blythewood Thursday morning and told him that her father died in Vietnam in 1965 and that she appreciated his support for veterans. Perry gave her a hug and thanked her for her father's service. Gladden began to cry. "He was so nice," Gladden said through tears.
A Perry volunteer, Debra Griffin, approached her and asked if she was all right. "I believe anyone who runs for president should have served in the military," Gladden said.
"Word of mouth really helps," Griffin told Gladden. "We can't let the media dictate who our nominee will be. It's not too late."
Griffin used to work for a Republican state senator, William Mesher, and is now retired. "He has a love of country, family and Israel," she said of Perry.
She decided to back Perry over Santorum because she doesn't think the former Pennsylvania senator is fiscally conservative enough and thinks he's socially too far to the right to win a general election.
Neither woman said they thought Romney could beat Obama.
At Duke's BBQ in Orangeburg a few hours later, Perry emerged from a tan GMC Suburban and began shaking the hands of a small group of voters who were waiting for him. "Let me see that buddy," he said as he signed an autograph for a young boy. "It's been a great reception. South Carolina kind of feels like home," he told another voter in his slow drawl.
Perry approached another man, jabbing his finger into the man's lapel pin. "Where you been?" he asked. "Afghanistan," the man replied. Perry then talked briefly about the veterans who have endorsed him.
As the event got underway, and a county official began introducing him, Perry nervously picked at his fingernails, his huge gold Texas A&M class ring flashing as it caught the light. Perry told the 50 or so people who had gathered there about how the town he grew up in was smaller than Orangeburg. He quoted Isaiah and talked about the importance of faith and family.
Perry's stump speech changed slightly from the day before—he dropped all mention of Mitt Romney practicing "vulture capitalism" while at Bain Capital, after sustaining a tough round of criticism for this tactic in an interview on Fox News the night before. Otherwise, the talking points were roughly the same—advocating for a part-time Congress (his biggest applause line), less spending and regulation, and criticizing Obama for seeking defense cuts.
Matthew Stroman, a 76-year-old Navy veteran who was born and raised in Orangeburg, showed up to the event eager to shake Perry's hand and to ask him about care for the country's veterans. "They don't treat veterans like they should," Stroman told Yahoo News.
But when asked if he was planning on voting for Perry, Stroman, who is African American, looked taken aback. "I'm voting for Barack Obama," he said. "I will die a Democrat because Republicans aren't going to do anything for the poor."
Robert Kovach, a Republican, overheard Stroman's comment and tried to loudly say something about Obama's record on illegal immigration. "Excuse me, I am talking to her," Stroman retorted. He then left to seek out Perry, saying excitedly, "I've never shook the hand of anyone who's running for president."
A retired schoolteacher from Cameron, Gay Summers, said she is planning on voting for Perry even though she's worried that comedians have parodied his gaffes in the debates. "We need a little humor in the White House," she said.
In Summerville later that afternoon, Perry heartily patted men on the back and traded quips with voters who asked him questions as he walked around the town and made stops in a few local stores. "Hi girls, how are y'all?" he said to two blonde toddlers. "One with blue eyes one with brown. Are they twins?"
The girls' mother said no, saying she had five kids, none of them twins. "Well done, busy mom," Perry said. "God bless you."
When Perry entered Guerin's Pharmacy, he shook the hand of Shannon Graves, a 19-year-old ice cream scooper there, who promptly confronted Perry about his stance against gay marriage.
"You can't sit there and tell two people that love each other they can't get married," Graves said, as the news cameras crushed in to capture the exchange.
Perry leaned over the counter and explained his position, saying that most people in the country think marriage is between a man and a woman. "We are majority rules in this country," he said. (Recent polls have shown Americans are split fairly evenly on the issue.)
Perry's handlers scooted him away, loudly saying he should talk to the store's owner. After the exchange, Graves, an independent, said that she is leaning toward Newt Gingrich because she likes his personality the best. But she feels disappointed that no one in the Republican field supports gay marriage.
"My cousin's gay and he was bullied a lot in high school," she said. "My best friend's gay and he has a boyfriend. It's sad to think he'll never be able to get married."
"He seemed real nice," she said of Perry. "He told me what he felt. I can't criticize somebody for being firm in their beliefs."
Perry remarked to members of his staff that Guerin's is "so much like the little pharmacy in my small town," before he left for the next store.
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