Small crowds speak to Perry's struggling, dying campaign

GREER, S.C. — Rick Perry walked into a pizza shop with eight news cameras trained on him, a dozen more reporters and a handful of Texas troopers and campaign staff.

At most, a dozen ordinary people waited for him Wednesday at Wild Ace Pizza.

This isn't what a top-tier presidential candidate's events should look like just four days before Saturday's South Carolina primary.

But Perry is no longer a top-tier candidate. And the crowds — or the lack of them — are just another indicator that Perry is about to lose his third race in a row after Republican front-runner Mitt Romney won in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The tough-talkin' Texas governor, who used to brag that he'd never lost an election, is expected to leave the race before the Florida primary on Jan. 31, assuming he places fourth in South Carolina as polls show. A CNN poll released Wednesday showed him pulling only 6 percent of the vote.

"I don't know what really happened to him," says Larry Stinson, a 58-year-old disabled veteran who was part of the pizza parlor skeleton crew that met Perry in downtown Greer. "I hope he can turn it around. But I'm not sure about that."

Stinson shared with Perry a story about how Romney was "arrogant" to him last week during a stop at a Greer motorcycle shop. Stinson said he wanted to ask the former Massachusetts governor if he'd give up his presidential salary if elected.

"You're worth almost $250 million ... " Stinson said he started to ask Romney before the Republican front-runner cut him off: "Yes, I am."

Romney walked away and Stinson said he couldn't finish his question because he was blocked by a crush of supporters.

Stinson didn't have that problem Wednesday. He chatted up Perry in the restaurant and later on Trade Street, a postcard perfect stretch of mom-and-pop shops nestled among redbrick buildings.

Perry's anemic crowds sharply contrast with the buzz he generated last summer when he entered the race. At debates in Tampa and Orlando, he was mobbed. Perry expected the Republican Party of Florida's September straw poll would slingshot him into permanent front-runner status.

But Perry lost the straw poll to Herman Cain, then went on to stumble through debates. Perry has excelled during the past two debates in South Carolina, though Newt Gingrich stole each show.

Regardless, the vacancy of Trade Street during Perry's visit underscored how far he's fallen. His campaign bused in about 20 students — from Mercer University, a Georgia school; they can't vote in the South Carolina election. Still, they filled seats at Southern Thymes restaurant, where Perry spoke to about 80 people.

Perry bashed President Barack Obama for nixing on Wednesday the Keystone pipeline deal with Canada, saluted veterans and made a veiled reference to Romney, considered a moderate by many of his fellow Republicans.

"We don't need a lighter version of Obama," Perry said. "We need a powerful contrast between what Obama's done on this economy and what I've been able to do in Texas."

Perry was less political and more personal when he met voters on Trade Street.

When he wandered into the Acme General Store, he was met by three staffers and two shoppers. He killed time, talking in detail about his small-town upbringing with owner Denise Vandenberghe, 41.

Perry won her vote.

"He's real, he's genuine," she said. "He comes from a small town just like me."

If Vandenberghe were a betting woman, would she wager on who Saturday's winner would be?

"I'm not a betting woman," she laughed.

Three workers met him at Trims on Trade, a hair salon. Four employees of Sith & James Men's Clothing Store chatted with him later.

"Not every day on the campaign trail is joyous," Perry said.

"When you die, your wish won't be: I wish I made another dollar," he said. "Your wish will be: I wish I had one more day."

Spoken like a candidate whose days are numbered.

(Caputo covers politics for The Miami Herald.)

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