Struggling South Carolina crucial to Perry's prospects

Posted Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Tony Pope, a bank executive in Chester County, S.C., offers a bleak picture of the economic hardships plaguing his community. Many of Chester's residents are still struggling to absorb the loss of textile jobs that will never come back.

Unemployment in his county, he says, hovers around 17 percent and has reached 22 percent.

Another somber testimonial comes from Debbie Small, 53, whose husband operates a landscape business in the coastal community of Georgetown.

"When the economy goes down, guess what goes first?" she says.

With a double-digit unemployment rate that exceeds the national average, South Carolina appears to be fertile ground for Texas Gov. Rick Perry's focus on the economy and his promise to "get America working again."

Since launching his presidential campaign in Charleston this month, Perry has mustered some prestigious endorsements and a hefty dose of early momentum in South Carolina, which relishes its kingmaking reputation as the site of next year's first Southern primary.

Many analysts also consider South Carolina a must-win state for Perry as he seeks a string of victories throughout the South to offset his rivals' strengths elsewhere.

"Naturally, Perry is the best fit for the South, but he's still getting his sea legs," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. "He bashed the door down when he came in, but the question is if he's going to be able to establish longevity in the campaign."

One of Perry's campaign themes -- his promise to duplicate Texas' robust record of job creation on the national level -- seems to resonate with many South Carolinians. The state has an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent, higher than the national average of 9.1 percent. The jobless rate is even higher in struggling rural counties.

The loss of public-sector jobs and continuing fallout from the housing crisis have contributed to the economic problems, economists say. Communities like Chester County, in the northern part of the state, never overcame the loss of textile industries.

"There is not a mood of doom and gloom, but there are certainly pockets of it," said John McDermott, chairman of the economics department at the University of South Carolina. The state's residents, he said, "are looking for some kind of changes at the national level that can spur employment and get people working again."

Key battleground

South Carolina's primary follows the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in the opening round of presidential contests. Over the past three decades, every winner of South Carolina's Republican primary went on to win the nomination, a record the state GOP leadership is eager to preserve in 2012.

In 2000, George W. Bush, Perry's predecessor as governor, used a victory in South Carolina to rebound from a loss to Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire and went on to the nomination and the White House. Perry signaled the state's importance to his aspirations by announcing his candidacy in Charleston on Aug. 13 and returning to the state the next week after swings through Iowa and New Hampshire.

"I think Perry is certainly off to a good start," said Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville. "It's going to depend on the perception of what people have three or four months from now, but there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm for the moment."

Rep. Michele Bachmann, winner of this month's Iowa straw poll, has also made repeated visits to South Carolina and returned last week, drawing responsive crowds on a statewide bus tour. Both Perry and Bachmann are competing for support among evangelicals, who make up a majority of Republican primary voters.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who took office in January, says the battle for the state is "anybody's game right now." She told reporters on the day Perry announced that she plans to make an endorsement before the primary. She has described Perry as a "superstar" but has offered no hints on which way she is leaning.

However, two other prominent Republicans -- former state House Speaker David Wilkins of Greenville and state Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler of Gaffney -- have endorsed Perry, suggesting that he will have strong support from the state's Republican establishment.

Contrasting views

Not everyone is jumping on the Perry bandwagon. Fliers left on cars parked at a campaign stop noted that Perry, then a Democratic state legislator, served in the Texas campaign for Al Gore's 1988 presidential bid. The leaflets, which didn't identify a source, also accused Perry of being soft on illegal immigration by championing legislation that granted in-state tuition to illegal immigrants in Texas. Perry defended the legislation when reporters asked him about his immigration stance.

But Perry's candidacy clearly strikes a chord with many South Carolinians, as evidenced by packed crowds at his campaign stops.

"I'm not prepared to endorse him, but I'm impressed with him," said former Gov. James B. Edwards, who held office in 1975-79 and was the state's first GOP governor since Reconstruction. "He's talking my language."

Two other Southerners -- Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain -- are also seeking the Republican nomination, but, as a front-runner, Perry is seen as the dominant Southern candidate. Consequently, analysts say, his candidacy would face a serious setback if he falls short of first place in South Carolina.

A victory there would also give him a boost in other big Southern states such as Florida, Virginia and Georgia.

Adam Beam of The State in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

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