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Small crowds speak to Rick Perry's struggles, dying campaign

PERRY PLUGS ALONG:  Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, left, talks with barber Mike Bullock and customer Mike McKinney at Bullock’s barber shop while campaigning Wednesday in Greer, S.C. Polls show the Texas governor in fourth place.

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PERRY PLUGS ALONG: Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, left, talks with barber Mike Bullock and customer Mike McKinney at Bullock’s barber shop while campaigning Wednesday in Greer, S.C. Polls show the Texas governor in fourth place.

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 people waited for him Wednesday at Wild Ace Pizza.

This isn't what a top-tier presidential candidate's events should look like just 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 he never lost an election, is expected to leave the race before the Florida primary on Jan. 31, if he places fourth in South Carolina as the polls show. A CNN poll 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 Romney 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 the crush of supporters.

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

The anemic crowds sharply contrast with the buzz Perry generated this summer when he first 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 and then went on to continue stumbling at debates.

In South Carolina, during the past two debates, Perry has excelled, though many believe Newt Gingrich outshone him.

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

Perry bashed President Barack Obama for nixing on Wednesday the Keystone energy pipeline deal with Canada, saluted veterans and made a veiled reference about Romney, considered a moderate by 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, adding that Perry is probably doing poorly because the negative-ad campaign across the state is keeping likely Perry supporters away from the polls.

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," he 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.

Up next

Saturday: South Carolina

primary. Polls close at 7 p.m.

Monday: GOP debate at

USF Tampa. Hosted by the Tampa Bay Times, NBC News, National Journal and the Florida Council of 100. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams will moderate. No public tickets available. Watch it from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on NBC and at

tampabay.com.

Jan. 31: Florida primary

Small crowds speak to Rick Perry's struggles, dying campaign 01/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:24pm]
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