FLORENCE, S.C. - Packed into a corner of the Drive-In restaurant, Rick Perry today attempted to differentiate himself from Rick Santorum, who is flirting with much of the evangelical vote that Perry is counting on to win South Carolina.
Perry slammed the former Pennsylvania senator's social conservative record while in Congress and made one clear religious distinction between the two candidates, for the first time mentioning that Santorum is a "good Catholic" two times.
"Rick Santorum is a good man," Perry said of Santorum during a media availability. "He is a good father. He's a good Catholic, but he hasn't always been a good conservative."
Seventy-four percent of South Carolinians identify themselves as Protestant or non-Catholic and only 10 percent identify themselves as Catholic, according to a recent Gallup poll. Raised a Methodist, Perry now worships at a nondenominational mega-church in Austin, Texas.
The Texas governor took issue with Santorum's vote to approve Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to an appellate court, which set her on track to become a Supreme Court justice.
"I mean she is pro-abortion," Perry said. "Obama is a very liberal president and she is reflective of his philosophy, so there were 29 conservatives that voted against her, people like Strom Thurmond, and Rick voted for her, so the idea that he is a pure social conservative, this flies right in the face of it."
Perry addressed Santorum's penchant for earmarks, calling it a "horrid record" that the Tea Party would not agree with. "As I said, good man, good father and husband, good Catholic, but not always a good conservative."
Asked to explain the differences between himself and Newt Gingrich, Perry passed on railing against the former speaker, only mentioning his previous support for the individual mandate and use of earmarks while in Congress before heading into talking points about needing to bring an outsider to Washington, D.C.
Perry stuck to his call for Mitt Romney to release his income tax returns, saying he should put forward his returns from the 200o's, including his time as governor of Massachusetts, but did not comment on the news that Romney likely pays a rate closer to 15 percent.
"Just release them and then we don't have to ask questions," Perry said. "Release it all, not the front page. Release all of your income tax and then the people of America can do the calculations, I think, rather speedily and figure out what it is and make an appropriate conclusion."
Gingrich suggested earlier in the day that a vote for Perry or Santorum is equivalent to voting for Romney, but Perry remained undeterred by the comment, saying the people of South Carolina will determine who the nominee will be.
"I say the people of South Carolina will make the decision about who they're going to vote for," Perry said. "That's the reason we have contests. That's the reason we have Super Bowls. That's the reason we have competitions. So we'll let the people of South Carolina make that decision. The media won't decide. The voters of South Carolina will decide."
Questioned about where he intends to go after the South Carolina primary, Perry, who is polling in last place here, avoided answering the question, saying he is focused only on the Palmetto State.
"I'm pretty focused on South Carolina, so not Disney world. We're headed to South Carolina, South Carolina, and South Carolina," Perry joked, "then we'll go to Disney World."