The honeymoon is over for Rick Perry.
The Texas governor soared to the front of the Republican pack in the weeks following his announcement for president in Charleston, enjoying a double-digit lead over onetime GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and stealing away the Tea Party support that had made Michele Bachmann a household name.
But a new poll released Tuesday by Winthrop University shows Perry’s numbers have come back to earth, leading Romney by just 3 percentage points among S.C. voters who say they “definitely” will vote in the GOP presidential primary early next year.
That’s well within the poll’s margin of error of 4.57 percent.
Perry remains the S.C. front-runner, but Romney has closed the gap, said Scott Huffmon, a political science professor and director of the Winthrop Poll.
“Three out of 10 likely voters right now are behind Perry. That’s powerful,” said Huffmon. “There has been such a lot of public criticism of Romney, but he seems to have support – more support than you can simply attribute to name recognition alone. There is support for Romney among the rank and file. It’s quiet, but it’s there.”
South Carolina’s “first in the South” Republican presidential primary correctly has chosen the nominee every election cycle since 1980. And, because the primary follows contests in Iowa in the Midwest and New Hampshire in the Northeast, candidates need to do well here to prove they have the ability to win a nationwide race.
But some say Romney does not have to win South Carolina to win the GOP nomination. He only has to do well enough to remain relevant and avoid his disastrous fourth-place finish in 2008.
Still, asked who they expected eventually to win the GOP nomination, Perry fared slightly better – being named by 35.4 percent vs. 29.4 percent for Romney.
Barry Wynn, a Perry supporter who is the treasurer for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint’s powerful political action committee, said the Winthrop Poll is more proof the race for the GOP nomination now is a two-person race. And he said S.C. voters will have to make their decision based on personality, not political views.
Wynn called Perry a “rough stone,” a “what you see is what you get, straight-shooting kind of diamond-in-the-rough-type guy.” Romney, Wynn said, is the “well polished stone. ... He is well-practiced and well-scripted and (there are) just no flaws there.
“Stylistically, these guys are going to be very different in terms of how they develop their campaigns in the next few weeks,” Wynn said.
State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, chairman of Romney’s S.C. campaign, said Romney will win the state, and the Winthrop Poll is proof the tide is turning.
“I think it’s just the pragmatic nature of South Carolina voters,” Loftis said. “(Perry) did well to start with. But as people start to evaluate Gov. Perry vs. Gov. Romney, I think they are going to make that choice for Romney every time.”
David Raad, spokesman for Romney’s S.C. campaign, said Romney will be in South Carolina “a couple of times next month,” continuing the trend of his increased presence in the Palmetto State.
Romney was a ghost in South Carolina for most of the summer, leading most of the polls but staying away while other candidates, notably Bachmann, saturated the state. But, earlier this month, Romney changed his plans at the last minute to participate in a forum organized by DeMint in Columbia. Last week, Romney also gave a speech in Charleston.
Meanwhile, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain has replaced U.S. Rep. Bachmann of Minnesota in third place. Cain had 7.7 percent support, according to the Winthrop Poll, behind Perry, Romney and “not sure.”
Bachmann, polling at 13 percent among S.C. voters in July and August, had just 3.5 percent support among likely S.C. GOP primary voters.
Huffmon said Perry has scooped up most of the Tea Party support in South Carolina – support that previously had gone to Bachmann.
Bachmann has spent a lot of time with S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley, spending the night at the Governor’s Mansion twice. Monday, Haley – who has not made an endorsement – told reporters not to count Bachmann out, comparing Bachmann’s presidential campaign to her own gubernatorial campaign.
“I think it is as much her game as anybody else’s,” Haley said. “Look at me in my race. I had no name ID and no numbers at the time – anything can happen.”
A spokesman for Haley later repeated the governor has extended an invitation to all of the Republican presidential candidates to stay at the mansion, although Bachmann is the only candidate to have done so. “We would anticipate that more of those candidates would begin to take the governor up on that offer as we get closer to the primary,” Godfrey said.
The Winthrop Poll asked voters who said they were definitely voting in the S.C. GOP presidential primary if it was more important to vote for someone who would win or someone who shared their beliefs.
Nearly 60 percent said they would vote for someone who shared their beliefs, while 34 percent said they would vote for someone who can beat Democratic President Barack Obama.
Huffmon cautioned it is difficult to tell what that means because some voters have a tendency to “backward justify” their votes. But S.C. Republican Party chairman Chad Connelly said South Carolina has proven its verdict is “legitimate” in presidential politics.
“I think the electorate nationally looks to South Carolina to pick the winner,” he said.
The poll surveyed 1,552 registered S.C. voters between Sept. 11 and Sept. 18. Most of the questions went to the 596 people who identified themselves as either Republicans or “Republican leaners” who are registered to vote.
The total margin of error for the poll was 2.49 percent, while the margin of error for those who “definitely” plan to vote in S.C.’s Republican presidential primary was 4.57 percent.