S.C. voters wonder: Will Rick Perry play the spoiler?

SPARTANBURG — Heath Stephens, a 48-year-old auto repair shop owner, has decided he is not voting for Mitt Romney.

After that, it gets kind of tricky.

At the Beacon Drive-In Sunday afternoon, Stephens listened to Rick Perry talk about his faith in Jesus Christ and how Texas, where Perry is governor, is the “most competitive state in the nation” — two things Stephens liked to hear. But with Perry at 5 percent in the polls, Stephens is troubled.

“Every vote you take away from somebody who could actually beat Romney is a vote for (Romney),” said Stephens, of Spartanburg. “That’s why I’m undecided.”

Perry kicked off a 15-day tour of South Carolina on Sunday, which is bound to give him a boost in the polls. But if it’s not enough to put him in the front, many wonder if Perry could be 2012’s version of Fred Thompson — the candidate who, four years ago, took enough votes from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to hand South Carolina to U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Rick Santorum doesn’t want to take that chance. The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania flew to Greenville for the day to match Perry’s campaign kickoff in the Upstate. He brought along Gary Bauer, a 2000 presidential candidate and conservative beacon, who endorsed Santorum at Stax’s Original Restaurant.

“You are going to see this race coming into South Carolina with a lot on the line. A lot on the line. South Carolina has to speak clearly,” Santorum told a standing-room-only crowd. “Particularly, the Upstate has to speak clearly that we do not need just a little better than what we have now. We need big change in Washington D.C.”

Jane Morgan, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mom, sees the comparisons to Fred Thompson — and it scares her.

“We were Huckabee supporters. We feel like Fred Thompson ruined it for Huckabee. He would be president of the United States right now if it Fred Thompson had not messed up,” she said while waiting for Santorum to speak at Stax’s Original Restaurant. “Anybody still supporting Perry right now is doing it out of loyalty to him. ... (Voters) know in their heart he is not a true contender in this. They need to go ahead and vote for Rick Santorum. Because if they loved Perry, they will love Rick Santorum even more.”

A poll released Saturday showed Romney at 30 percent in South Carolina with Gingrich in second place with 23 percent. Santorum was third with 19 percent. But the polling firm, Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling company, noted that “the candidate with the best chance of beating Romney in South Carolina is Santorum” because “he edges out Romney as the candidate with the best favorability rating.”

Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based political consultant who is not working for any presidential campaign, agreed.

“This guy (Santorum) is the only guy who has any momentum, any enthusiasm — at least to the scale to possibly upset the apple cart,” he said. “The rest of them have just dug too deep of a hole.”

In Spartanburg, Perry said he does not want to be anybody’s spoiler. He delivered an emotional speech to a crowd of about 100 people, where he said President Barack Obama is “out of touch with the soul of this country.” It was Perry’s first trip to South Carolina since his poor showing in Iowa on Tuesday — so poor that Perry canceled a week’s worth of events in South Carolina to return to Texas and “reassess” his campaign.

In returning to South Carolina, Perry was seeking to regain a foothold in a state that, five months ago, launched him into the Republican front-runner, only to see him come crashing down.

“It’s about your children. It’s about your grandchildren. It’s about this $15 trillion debt that’s been laid upon their back. It’s this 20-plus million either unemployed or underemployed Americans who are counting on somebody to get it right. To give them confidence once again,” he said. “So if anybody wonders about why I’m in this race, that’s why. I never quit a day in my life. I have never quit in the face of adversity and I’m not just about to quit on the future of America. I am going to stay in this race and stay in this fight because our children in this country are worth the fight.”

Perry’s speech won over at least one undecided voter — Lisa Bohn, a 48-year-old single mother of four. She likes Perry, no matter what his poll numbers say.

“I think some people tend to go with what people in high political positions may endorse, just to get on the bandwagon. I’m not one of those,” she said. “My personal opinion is that Romney is probably going to get the Republican nomination. But he won’t do it on my vote.”

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