ANDERSON, South Carolina (Reuters) - After rejection in Iowa and surrender in New Hampshire, Republican Rick Perry has pinned his fading presidential hopes on a long-shot resurrection in deeply conservative South Carolina.
But Perry, the Texas governor who jumped to the top of opinion polls when he entered the race in August, trails badly in a state that once seemed tailor-made for his blend of Christian faith and anti-Washington rhetoric.
“Give me a second look. Look at my record,” Perry pleaded with voters in Anderson on Monday, the second day of a South Carolina tour that will take him up to the make-or-break January 21 presidential primary.
Perry finished a dismal fifth in Iowa’s January 3 nominating contest and briefly considered dropping out of the 2012 Republican White House race before announcing last week he would skip Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and focus on South Carolina.
“I don’t quit. I‘m not about to quit on this country,” he told a small crowd of supporters and diners at a restaurant in Anderson.
But a comeback will be hard in South Carolina, which has picked the winner of the Republican presidential nomination each year since the primary began in 1980. Polls show Perry, who once led the state by more than 20 points, in a distant fifth after a series of disastrous debate performances.
National front-runner Mitt Romney has surged into the state lead in the battle to nominate a challenger to President Barack Obama, and rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have moved ahead of Perry in the battle for conservative support.
“It’s difficult to foresee any way Perry turns this around,” said David Woodard, a Republican strategist who teaches at Clemson University in South Carolina. “Once you get stereotyped and dismissed, it’s hard to overcome.”
Perry and his advisers acknowledge the uphill task but hope to revive his campaign with a pitch focused on the state’s high unemployment rate and aimed at its blend of evangelicals, military veterans and conservative Tea Party activists.
‘HOPE FOR THE BEST’
“In a jobs debate, hand’s down he’s the candidate,” said Katon Dawson, Perry’s state chairman. “We just have to work hard, tell our story and hope for the best.”
Perry, who attends an evangelical church in Texas, has always made his Christian faith a big part of his public image, which could be an asset in a state where two-thirds of primary voters in 2008 attended church at least once a week.
On Monday, he focused on his goals of job creation and cutting spending, emphasizing his outsider status in Washington compared to rivals like Gingrich, a former House speaker, and Santorum, a former U.S. senator.
He also blistered Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, for his work at a private equity firm that critics say helped destroy jobs and companies, including some in South Carolina.
“There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is the way you do business,” he said, calling it the “ultimate insult” for Romney to tell those suffering a job loss that he feels their pain.
Perry supporters in the Anderson crowd said they were won over by his faith and his record in Texas.
“I like his moral values. I also believe he could bring jobs back to America,” said Barbara Hughes, a homemaker with two children.
Barbara Mattison, a health worker from Anderson, said she was drawn to Perry’s simple style and humble roots in rural west Texas. “He’s kind of a common man, and that’s what I really like about him,” she said.
Asked if she thought he could win South Carolina, she shook her head no. “I‘m afraid,” she said. “He started out big, but it didn’t last.”
Perry, who led Republican candidates in raising money in the third quarter of last year and spent more than $5 million on ads in the losing effort in Iowa, is already running television ads in South Carolina.
He organized his campaign in South Carolina early and plans to make three or four personal appearances a day around the state until the primary in a last-ditch effort.
“The Perry folks thought all along this was their state,” said Barry Wynn, a former state Republican chairman. “So it makes sense to give it a try. If you run, you might as well get to the state you were focused on.”
Editing by Deborah Charles and Paul Simao