FLORENCE, SC — Rick Santorum stood atop a step at Percy and Willie’s Food & Spirit, beside a flag-and-campaign banner. The press at his events outnumbered his supporters for months in 2011, but no longer.
Behind him, even though we were deep in the heart of football country, all of the televisions were switched from the NFL playoff game to CSPAN — which was showing a live feed of the sweater-vested one.
The Santorum campaign has got its groove on.
On Saturday, the former Pennsylvania senator received the endorsement of a group of leading evangelicals meeting in Texas with a goal of stopping Mitt Romney’s march to the Republican Party nomination. This endorsement is a marked shift from the last Republican rodeo in 2008, when evangelicals were so divided that John McCain won the South Carolina primary by 3 percent over Mike Huckabee and went on to capture the party’s nomination.
On Sunday, Santorum began the day by speaking to the South Carolina Tea Party convention in Myrtle Beach at its Faith and Freedom breakfast. Next, he hit the national airwaves for TV interviews, and then swung through the Pee Dee region in the northeast corner of the state.
First he stopped in Conway, half hour inland from Myrtle Beach. Then he hit his major stop of the day in Florence. This city of 37,000 is a textile and manufacturing hub that is a good fit for Santorum’s economic populism.
In Florence the campaign took over Percy and Willie’s, a popular “food and spirits” hangout — but no spirits on Sunday — located just off Interstate 20. The place is far from fancy; it’s the kind of local favorite that adept campaigns target. Imagine a cross between the Wedgwood Broiler and the Ram at U-Village. On the diner’s marquee it read, “Rick Santorum Sunday 2-4.”
The place was packed when we arrived an hour before his scheduled appearance at 3 pm. Nearly everyone sported a campaign sticker, button, or sign — another mark of a strategic campaign team. A local female beauty-pageant winner and a boy about the age of 12 were handing out the patriotic paraphernalia.
Mature men and young boys proudly sported sweater vests. Red, blue, gray, green, brown, orange — all the colors of the rainbow, monochromatic and multi-colored with checks. People at tables saw the press badges worn by myself and my students, and they reached out to pull us aside, wanting to share their enthusiasm about Santorum. It had a feel, a vibe, an energy that candidates on the move have.
When he addressed the crowd, Santorum offered a message that has nothing subtle about it: America is great, different and better than any other country in the world, and the reason why is its religious faith.
“We are a hugely faith-filled country and always have been,” Santorum said. “The founding principles are there in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, that our rights are from God. This country still believes in those basic values and principles. It’s the reason why we’re the greatest country in the world.”
The message played well. Applause, hmm-hmm’s and amen’s interrupted several lines.
Former Rick Perry supporters kept popping up in our conversations with diners. One of them, Lois Braddock, said, “I’m really sold on this Rick.” This one seems more electable in her eyes, and he brings all the faith in God that the other one offers.
Marshall and Kathi Flowers, in their 50s and owners of a local construction business, were also former Perry supporters.
In the words of Kathi, Perry had “hung himself” already, performance wise, and she declared that Santorum “had a Reagan vibe.” Marshall said that he “wanted a clean candidate,” referring to character, and not appearance.
“Vote your values” was the message today for South Carolinian’s in Florence. We’ll see in less than a week if they do, at least in Santorum’s name.