NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C.—The schedule should have been a giveaway. Originally, Rick Perry was going to spend the last Wednesday before the South Carolina primary on a barnstorming tour of the ultraconservative Piedmont. He’d talk at a pizza place, then meet with Bob Jones University students, then rap with voters in the too-quaint-to-believe town of Greer, then talk about the “personhood” rights of fetuses in Greenville.
It was not to be. For once, I remembered to check the freshest version of the candidate’s schedule, and saw that he’d moved the Greer tour up and made it his only event before the “personhood” one. This allowed me to race up the highway toward the Perry campaign, and to escape the fate of the hacks who camped out at Bob Jones only to learn that the governor wasn’t coming. (This should have been a giveaway, too—a presidential candidate going to Bob Jones University and the media barely caring.)
When I arrived, Perry was already inside the Acme General Store, in full-on retail campaign mode. Some of his staffers were wearing blue “PERRY: PRESIDENT” fleeces; he was wearing one with “GOVERNOR” below the campaign logo, and walking in comfortable ostrich-skin shoes. With his right hand he held a plastic cup of coffee. With his left, he pointed out wine bottles to the people with the worst jobs in campaign reporting—“embeds” assigned to point cameras at candidates whenever they’re out in the open and follow them from stop to stop like jilted Justin Bieber stalkers.
“Which one do you like?” Perry asked one of the embeds.
“I like the pinot noir,” she said. “What do you drink?”
“Um, I don’t drink much,” said Perry. “But if I were [getting one], it would be this one. The chardonnay.”
Another embed, trying to do something with the frozen moment, asked Perry to react to the Obama administration’s decision to put off the Keystone XL pipeline. Perry looked dully into the lens.
“Uh, it doesn’t surprise me,” he said. “But it’s, uh, again, the president’s focused more on the next election than on the next generation. Getting this country, uh, dependent on, uh, foreign sources of crude, and on countries that are not our friends is, uh, really problematic. So this Canadian oil, uh, there’s a possibility we could lose it to China, uh, with that decision. So I hope Americans will really become unhinged with that decision, because it is a really bad decision for our country, for energy independence, and, uh, sends a horrible message at a time that we’re headed, uh, to $4 to $5 oil—sorry, $4 to $5 gasoline, uh, to have a neighbor who’s willing to sell us crude that is, uh, available.”
The embed has done his job; a somewhat coherent piece of breaking news was in the can. The governor moved out of the shop, tousling the curly hair of a young boy, Jameson Welchel, whose mother had brought him in to play with Legos. “You look like my boy when he was about your age,” said Perry. He beckoned for his son, Griffin, who in recent weeks had been writing funny, unvarnished tweets about the campaign. “This is my boy. He had tight”—Perry held up his hands to mime a hairstyle—“like that, and he was cotton-headed.”
The governor headed out to his next stop, and Griffin stuck around to talk to Duane Kelly, an investor in the store. I asked him what he thought of the drum-drum-drum of talk radio telling his dad to quit the race.
“Look, we don’t pay attention to talking heads,” said Griffin. “Our job is to listen to the people, and to listen to the advisers we have around. There’s a reason those people are paid to talk and my dad is paid to do what he does.”
There was a time when his dad paid more attention. Back on Aug. 13, 2011, he announced his campaign for president at a hotel named for the great Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion—the spot where the blog RedState was holding a conference. He stiffed Iowa (that’s how the locals saw it, anyway) while declaring himself the candidate of the right-wing blogerati.
Six months later, they were all calling on him to quit. He was getting no traction, and he didn’t look like he ever would. “Boy,” said Duane Kelly. “He looks exhausted. That’s got to be exhausting.” At that moment, Perry was actually crackling back to life. Around 20 students from Georgia’s Mercer University had located the Perry campaign—they were touring the state, learning about politics. Perry spent 10 minutes talking to them on the sidewalk, taking particular interest in a student who’d served in the Marine Corps, and telling him a very long version of a story about one of his endorsers, a Medal of Honor winner, saving another Medal of Honor winner. (Said endorser, Mike Thornton, stood watch a couple of feet away. The medal hung around his neck.)
“What’s the best part of campaigning?” asked one student.
“Getting to see different parts of the country that you never would,” said Perry, with none of the “uhs” that he emitted during the policy question. “South Carolina’s got great cities. These older towns that have great character. I’ll tell you this, Georgetown’s one of the more intriguing cities—big ol’ oak trees over the streets.”
Perry slowly worked through town, ending up at the Southern Thymes Cafe, which was ominously far from crowded. The Georgia students got there early and occupied the best seats. They also asked the only two questions that Perry had time for, softballs about “what else you wanted to say at the debate” and what he’d do for veterans. “It’s all about the next generation,” said Perry, “like these kids from Mercer!” And then he was gone. His campaign team confirmed that the other events were canceled, but that they were only tentative anyway.
The governor enjoyed some downtime. Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., he made a decision: He would leave the race. As the day went on, he broke the news to advisers. Still, he kept his “personhood” appointment. He took a chair onstage at a Hilton in Greenville and was gently grilled by three moderators who wanted to know how pro-life he really was. When they were done, they offered him 60 seconds for closing remarks.
“Sixty seconds!” said Perry. “That sounds like a debate!” He jokingly slapped his thigh with a sheet of paper. The audience got the joke.
The next morning, the embeds and everybody else filed into a North Charleston Hyatt to watch Perry admit defeat. “I am not done fighting for the cause of conservatism,” he said, after endorsing Newt Gingrich and thanking his family and chagrined endorsers. “In fact, I have only begun to fight.”
That statement meant so much less than it did six months ago, at the hotel down the highway. Perry had been reduced by the exposure of a presidential campaign. He’d been a proud, libertarian critic of the welfare state. He’d become a guy shambling through retail campaign stops until he, and his donors, couldn’t take it anymore.
After Perry wrapped and disappeared upstairs, his campaign team gritted its teeth through endless chats with reporters. They revealed the tick-tock of the decision process, and how Perry had come to endorse Gingrich. They assured us that nothing like the 2012 Perry campaign could happen again—that the media will never again grind down good men by tripping them up with endless debates and obsessive coverage.
“The lesson,” said Perry’s South Carolina adviser Katon Dawson, “is that the candidates are gonna need to have the discipline, and the campaign teams are gonna need to have the discipline, to say yes and no. You watch. The Democrats will. There’ll be a panel, there’ll be a campaign adviser on each one, and they’ll pick the [debate] dates they want, the people they want.” The media had set traps for Perry, he said. “They were building the fields, and waiting for them to come. That won’t happen again. We were a victim of the drive-by shootings of the mainstream and liberal media, and we let them dictate our primary, and we did it to our peril.”