SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Rick Perry isn’t fooling anybody.
The cocksure Texas governor may have comfortably resisted taking the bait on a half-dozen questions about his 2016 presidential ambitions from reporters in this first-in-the-South primary state.
“I just try to deflect as much 2016 conversation as I can,” he said Tuesday. “As I said, my focus is on 2014...”
He may have even heaped unbridled praise on potential future rivals such as Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker as part of his ongoing cross-country campaign to trumpet the success of his colleagues.
“Day in and day out, it is inarguable that the states that are doing the best in this country are governed by Republican governors,” he said, sounding more like a team captain than a solo star player.
But no matter what he claims publicly, Perry is certainly running for the White House again. He’s far from an announced candidate yet, of course. That’s a decision that won’t become official before 2015.
Yet everything about him—his busy travel schedule, his repackaged and refocused stump speech, his new hip eyewear, even the size of his entourage—have the markings of a candidate in waiting, of a contender eager for redemption.
“I think for sure he will,” said Kit Jennings, treasurer of the Spartanburg Rotary Club, which Perry addressed Tuesday. “It appears that way from the number of people he had with him today.”
As one veteran political campaign operative remarked, “You reporters always ask the wrong question, ‘Are they running?’ It’s who’s not running or when they decide to stop.”
Perry’s been full-throttle since announcing in July he wouldn’t pursue a fourth term as governor. He’s already been back to Iowa in person and appeared via tele-townhall—and this two-day jaunt through the Upstate is his second venture into South Carolina in four months.
“Somebody asked me, ‘What are you doing over in South Carolina?’ I said I wanted to come over personally and apologize for the Texas Aggies not being able to beat Missouri,” Perry joked, deploying a timely failsafe barb about a South Carolina Gamecock rival in this college football-obsessed state.
In many ways, Perry’s profile fits South Carolina to a tee. He’s a Southerner who has a familiar accent, and his full-throated conservatism is in sync with the culture. A former pilot in the Air Force, he can talk veterans’ issues with credibility in this military-minded state. At the same time, he knows how to deliver the red meat when it’s ordered up, as at the state party’s winter dinner gathering Tuesday night.
“Don’t think for a moment this is going to stop with our health care. To quote Rush Limbaugh, the next thing President Obama will say is, ‘If you like your guns, you can keep them,’” Perry told about 120 party activists.
“The personal charisma meter just goes off the charts with Rick Perry because he’s a regular guy from Texas,” said Katon Dawson, the chairman of Perry’s 2012 South Carolina campaign who now serves as his top liaison in the state.
If Perry follows through with another national campaign as most now expect—“I don’t think there’s any question about it,” Haley Barbour predicted in September—South Carolina will be of critical importance, as was the case in 2012.
It’s the state where he launched his bid in August 2011—on the same day of the Iowa straw poll—and, five months later, it’s where he ultimately ended it, choosing to endorse Newt Gingrich rather than face an embarrassing drubbing at the primary ballot box just a few days later.
“He always had a powerful story to tell. We just had him all hurt and bunged up when we got him the first time,” said Dawson.
But even Perry’s most ardent allies acknowledge the barriers to a second shot.
The governor’s star has undoubtedly faded here, as it has nationally, in the wake of the disastrous unraveling of his first presidential run. His “oops” moment is now an infamous chapter in debate history—a televised moment frozen in time that seemed to verify his critics’ harshest attack: that he lacks the intellectual heft to be commander in chief.
A GOP pollster recently decided not even to include Perry in its South Carolina survey. One of Perry’s most prominent supporters in 2012, Rep. Mick Mulvaney, has already indicated he’s inclined to sign on with Sen. Rand Paul next time. Multiple polling out of the Lone Star State has shown Sen. Ted Cruz as the home state preference for president, not Perry. And then perhaps the most confounding hurdle for him to overcome is why the party would turn to an also-ran when it’s anticipating an all-star lineup.
“His flub wasn’t a mortal mistake. He just had a brain freeze at the worst possible moment,” said Ari Fleischer, the former Bush White House press secretary. “I think his biggest issue is just going to be whether the Republican Party has moved on and is looking for something totally new and different looking, especially if the A-team takes the field in 2016.”
Admits Dawson, “It’s going to be a pretty sexy-looking bunch.”
Nonetheless, Perry is betting on making himself a player again the old-fashioned way, by running on his unvarnished record—a measure of unimpeachable economic achievement in the state he’s governed for 13 years.
“I thought everybody outside the state of Texas knew how successful Texas is...and that wasn’t necessarily the case,” Perry said, reflecting on his 2012 run.
The statistics at his disposal are impressive, and he’s vigilant about sprinkling them into every speech he makes: home of the most Fortune 500 companies, third in average annual income, tops in job growth, the country’s biggest exporter.
“Everybody gets a mulligan. The question is, can Rick Perry take advantage of one?” said Fleischer. “He’ll have to prove he’s learned the lessons. He has to demonstrate depth, intellect, strength.”
Perry’s stump speech is already vastly more crisp and disciplined, in no small part due to the practice he’s getting delivering it. His campaign-in-the-making isn’t limited to early primary states, after all. Perry is going everywhere, dropping into state party events in California and Missouri and at businesses in Maryland.
He’s already booked for a Kansas GOP event after the New Year.
At two separate events Tuesday, Perry promised to return to South Carolina next summer for the inaugural conference football game between his Texas A&M, alma mater, and South Carolina.
“I will be here in August 2014,” he thundered to a smattering of laughs and applause.
Here’s to betting he’s back long before.
Correctoin: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described Rick Perry's service in the Air Force. Perry was a pilot, and ended his service in 1977 with the rank of captain.