FLORENCE, SC — Speaking to media during an impromptu press conference Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry twice mentioned rival Rick Santorum's Catholic faith in criticizing his record on fiscal issues.
"Rick Santorum is a good man, he is a good father, he’s a good Catholic," Perry, an evangelical Christian, said. "But he hasn’t always been a good conservative."
The casual but twice-repeated remark — the first time that Perry has publicly pointed to his rival's faith — attracted the attention of journalists because both men are competing to win evangelical voters in the final days before the South Carolina primary.
Perry attends a nondenominational evangelical church and speaks frequently of redemption and his refocus on faith after feeling "lost" in his late 20s. After the exit of Rep. Michele Bachmann from the GOP presidential campaign, Perry was left remaining as the most vocal evangelical in the GOP field. (Both Santorum and Newt Gingrich are Catholic; Mitt Romney is Mormon. Ron Paul is Baptist but speaks far less frequently about his faith than the Texas governor.)
National reporters who had attended a Gingrich campaign event blocks away from The Drive In restaurant mobbed the governor as he made his way around its tables. Television reporters clambered onto tables and low walls to catch a glimpse of Perry as he chowed down on a gyro burger and onion rings with a state party official.
Despite his religious kinship with a substantial block of Republican primary voters, and his overt courting of socially conservative voters, Perry's campaign has failed to retain his early traction in South Carolina due to the gaffes and misstatements that deflated his frontrunner status.
Asked Tuesday whether he intends to travel on to another primary state after Saturday's vote — a possibility that seems dimmer by the day — Perry joked that he's concentrating on the Palmetto State but could take a victory lap akin to the vacation famously cited by Super Bowl winners.
"We’re headed to South Carolina, South Carolina, and South Carolina," he said. "Then we’ll go to Disney World.”