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Perry Vaults to Frontrunner Status in South Carolina

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.

Gov. Nikki Haley (R), elected to her first term in 2010 after winning a GOP primary on the strength of considerable tea party support, might also be influential, should she choose to endorse in the race.

Perry’s prospects for staying on top in South Carolina depend on how he wears with voters in the coming months and how they respond to a full vetting of his 11 years as governor and more than two decades in statewide elective office in Texas. That story is sure to be told in an unflattering light by Perry’s opponents, in addition to the narrative presented by the governor’s campaign.

One Republican insider based in Columbia, the state capital, said the initial excitement over Perry is a credit to the governor’s charisma and perceived conservatism, where he’s from, and that he “walks like us and talks like us.” This insider likened the quick support for Perry to the initial support for Barbour, a Southern governor who “looks like one of us.”

But this Republican said Perry’s gubernatorial record could be vulnerable with South Carolinians, given his stances on immigration, gay marriage and an executive order that he signed mandating that sixth-grade girls get vaccinated against the human papilloma virus, which some studies have shown can cause cervical cancer. Social conservatives in Texas decried the move, arguing it might encourage sexual promiscuity, and the Legislature later overturned it.

Perry has since backed off his original position on the vaccination issue, conceding he should have worked with the Legislature. Perry has also distanced himself from comments that he made before launching his campaign in which he said that same-sex marriage should be a states’ rights issue. Perry’s staunch support for the 10th Amendment, which reserves powers not proscribed in the Constitution for the states, might make it difficult for the governor to attack Romney’s position on health care.

Romney is believed vulnerable in the GOP primary in many states because he orchestrated the enactment of a health care reform law in Massachusetts that includes an individual mandate to buy insurance, a plan that served as a model for President Barack Obama’s federal health care law.

It remains unclear where South Carolina’s tea party activists will fall, with Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) remaining strong contenders for their votes, the Republican insider in South Carolina said.

“Some will jump immediately [to back Perry] because that’s just the nature of the beast,” the source said. “But others are going to want to see him around a little while — sort of like buying a car, they’re going to want to kick the tires and see what’s actually there.”

A top Republican operative who is also based in Columbia agreed, saying Romney might still finish on top — particularly if Bachmann, who would appear to be targeting the same voters as Perry, criticizes the Texas governor in a way that would diminish his early popularity.  “Gov. Perry’s entry has changed the game in South Carolina. He’s the instant frontrunner,” the GOP operative said. “But I wouldn’t count out Gov. Romney.”

Although South Carolina’s demographics continue to change, the most conservative voters, including those most concerned about social issues, tend to live in and near Greenville and Spartanburg counties. Republicans in Charleston and elsewhere along the Low Country coast tend to be more attuned to national security and business issues, with GOP voters in the central region of South Carolina an amalgam of the two.

This cycle, however, jobs and the economy are far outpacing other issues with the statewide electorate. Electability also plays a role in how South Carolina Republicans vote — the winner has gone on to secure the GOP nomination at least as far back as 1980.

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