Rick Perry wants South Carolina to be his San Jacinto, but the way things are going, he’ll be lucky if his campaign emerges from Saturday’s primary with a fraction of the support it had when Perry announced his run for president.
With two days to go, Perry polls among South Carolina Republicans at about 6 percent — the same number of people who said they had no opinion about whom they’d choose. His campaign has been damaged by defections – notably top donor Barry Wynn, who left Perry for Mitt Romney – and an inability to gain ground with the public, despite spending millions of dollars.
Behind the scenes, many fundraisers and supporters who once waxed ecstatic over Perry as the GOP’s white knight when he entered the race now say they’re deflated and upset that he didn’t appear ready for the task.
“It’s over. It’s long over. Sometimes things are finished before they’re over. It’s embarrassing to come out of the gate and get shot down, but it happens,” said a Perry fundraiser who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “You’d think a guy who had 11 years in office … that he’d prepare, he’d read the paper and get prepared.”
Supporters point to Perry’s poor performance in debates as the key moments when fundraising dried up. The biggest mistakes that cost him, they say, were his “oops” moment when he forgot a government agency he said he would cut, and when he said people who didn’t want to educate the children of illegal immigrants didn’t ”have a heart.”
Those early stumbles froze what would have been important donations, fundraisers said, and the campaign has all but given up on trying to regain its mojo even as Perry soldiers on in South Carolina.
“Nobody calls, nobody works, nobody has any expectations that he’s gonna win,” the fundraiser said.
“It is the nature of some in the fundraising community to move around between candidates depending on news coverage or poll numbers,” said Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for Perry. “We have a large and loyal fundraising base, and that has helped us compete in the early states and continue to compete here in South Carolina.”
Conservatives have started calling for Perry to get out of the way so that other alternatives to Romney, such as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, could pick up his votes. The conservative blogger Erick Erickson wrote Wednesday that Perry should step aside so he can be a “kingmaker,” and the radio host Laura Ingraham tweeted that the Texas governor should quit because he’s “helping Romney by splitting the vote.”
Perry dazzled supporters by raising $17 million in about six weeks when he entered the race, but even with so much cash, he couldn’t pull off impressive finishes in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Fundraisers now say the money is so slow to come in that there’s no hope for his candidacy.
“What’s there to talk about?” Bill Miller, an Austin-based lobbyist whose firm’s PAC has boosted Perry’s campaigns, said when asked about the candidate’s fundraising status. “It’s over. The campaign’s over. They’re executing the last stop, but it’s over. And everyone knows it.”
Sullivan dismissed Miller’s remark by saying that as a lobbyist, he has switched allegiances and is “no friend of our operation.”
Some supporters blame the press for portraying Perry harshly, perhaps exaggerating his mistakes that were just brief moments in a campaign that spans months. After all, Perry is known for an impeccable charm and being able to impress small groups of potential supporters in private.
One such story comes from Carpentersville, Ill., where Jack Roeser, an engineering businessman, brought Perry to a private fundraiser after being blown away by the candidate in Austin. At the Illinois breakfast, Roeser helped raised $100,000 for Perry. “Everybody there loved him,” he said.
But the national light shines brightly and in high-definition.
“The press has a big effect,” said Roeser, who still thinks Perry would make the best president. “He wasn’t very slick in the way he presented himself. Maybe that’s his fault.”
Perry’s one-time phalanx isn’t completely deserted. Henry Barbour, the nephew of Haley Barbour and a lobbyist in Mississippi, was an early cheerleader for Perry and still holds onto hope that the Texas governor could beat expectations in South Carolina and pull off a miracle in the next primary, in Florida.
“I don’t know why people are in such a hurry,” Barbour said. “We’ve had one caucus and one primary, and we’re not even at 1 percent of delegates – for people to act like, ‘Oh, my gosh, why is he sticking around?’”
“Every candidate’s got a certain amount of low-hanging fruit, and then you’ve got to convert momentum into cash,” Barbour said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that the fourth-quarter fundraising wasn’t as strong as the third quarter, because he lost some of that momentum. … There are ups and downs.”
Many supporters would argue that the campaign has been mostly downs, falling far short of the expectation that was set before Perry entered the race as a front-runner. A Republican operative with ties to the campaign said he offered to help at one point by writing a memo, but he said it was discarded, reflecting the campaign’s decision not to accept help from Washington types.
“This whole ‘we’re going to be outside D.C., and we’re not going to accept help from people inside D.C.,’ it’s just a dumb idea, and there’s just really nothing more to say about it than that,” said the operative, who asked not to be named.
“By the time Perry realized that,” he said, “ it was too late.”