COLUMBIA, S.C. — Second chances.
The phrase — or some variation of it — was repeated by former Gov. Rick Perry no fewer than 14 times as he made a humble appeal Tuesday to hundreds of Christian college students here, preaching a gospel of redemption that often intersected with his own story.
"God," Perry said, "is always about giving people second chances."
Meant to stir students considering lives of public service, the refrain evoked Perry’s current mission as much as theirs: convincing early-state primary voters he deserves another crack at a presidential run after his 2012 bid ended in embarrassment. That campaign had no shortage of overt appeals to religious voters, ranging from a thousands-strong prayer rally in Houston that preceded it to a TV ad that featured Perry lamenting "gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
Perry, who was happy to vie for the role of culture warrior during his 2012 run, was more modest Tuesday, spinning a yarn on his spiritual awakening against the backdrop of his salt-of-the-earth upbringing in small town West Texas. He swapped the lightning-rod social issues — issues that he has since prodded his party to de-emphasize — for a biographical sketch of a born-again Christian who's had his faith tested.
"That's the real Rick Perry," said Katon Dawson, Perry's top adviser in the Palmetto State. "The story of coming from Paint Creek and anything’s possible is a powerful Christian story and it’s a powerful political story, and that matters."
While Perry’s address was largely apolitical, he did touch on foreign policy, bemoaning the Islamic State terrorist group’s “seemingly endless pursuit” of members of other religions, particularly Christians. During a Q-and-A with Columbia International University President William Jones after his speech, Perry issued a stark warning to students about to enter the real world: "They hate you, they hate your way of life and they hate your values."
It was a jarring moment in an otherwise soft-spoken appearance that featured Perry roaming the stage and shouting out to pastors in the front rows by their first names.
Perry spoke at length about his work with a Democratic judge in Texas to set up drug courts for nonviolent offenders, a somewhat new staple of his stump speech. The courts, Perry said, put defendants on the path to more productive lives instead of trapping them in prisons where "they learned how to be real criminals."
"That's the key — to give people the opportunity to have these second chances in life," Perry said. "I sure got mine."
The speech was the most public part of a two-day swing through South Carolina stocked with overtures to the faith-based voters who wield outsize influence in the early-voting states. After leaving Columbia International University, Perry met privately with local pastors at a nearby barbecue joint. He hosted a similar gathering the night before in the Charleston area. And he was accompanied on the trip by new adviser Jamie Johnson, an ordained minister whose job is rallying conservatives around Perry in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Perry's trip to South Carolina came amid an ongoing aggressive play by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for religious voters, starting with his decision to announce he was running for president last month at Liberty University, the largest Christian college in the country. Since then, the Texas Republican — who wrapped up his own swing through the state on Sunday — has moved quickly to seize the mantle of the early favorite of Christian conservatives, airing a faith-themed TV ad during Easter weekend and becoming one of the most forceful GOP voices supporting Indiana's controversial religious freedom law.
Perry's speech Tuesday begged a comparison with Cruz's presidential announcement last month, which was attended by thousands of Liberty students required to be there. The chapel service Perry spoke at Tuesday also had mandatory attendance, and as he spoke, the few hundred students listening passed around a clipboard with paperwork to verify they were present.
Cruz's splashy rollout was still fresh on some pastors' minds as Perry came through the state.
“He made his announcement at Liberty University," said Kevin Baird, a Charleston pastor who heads the South Carolina Pastors Alliance. "I can tell you for us that says something. It says he doesn’t mind hanging around us," alluding to the frustration of some religious voters who feel like they are a box to check for certain candidates.
Cruz's announcement translated into an "incredible amount of buzz" within the faith-based community in the Palmetto State, said Baird, who went to the Monday meeting with Perry. The pastor ultimately cut himself short, joking that his remarks were beginning to sound like an official endorsement of Cruz.
Mike Hamlet, a Spartanburg pastor who planned to attend the Tuesday lunch with Perry, was less certain about Cruz’s immediate impact on the faith-based vote. Asked whether he has seen a new wave of support for the senator among religious voters since the announcement, Hamlet sounded ambivalent.
“Probably no more than anybody else” who’s been courting faith-based voters in South Carolina, replied Hamlet, a former Houstonian who is close friends with Perry’s pastor in Austin. “I don’t know. I think that coming out of the box quick — I don’t know that sews it up or puts him there in that sense. Obviously, at Liberty University, that was a good thing and is a clear statement, but I don’t know that it’s overwhelming.”
Perry's team, meanwhile, did not appear to be sweating Cruz's high-profile outreach to religious voters.
"I haven’t seen any evidence that that’s paid off, but it’s early in the game," Dawson said, going back to the overall appeal of Perry's biography that factored prominently into his South Carolina trip: "We’re not putting on a show or any airs. You get a Texan from Paint Creek who has a record to talk about."