- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 17, 2012

FLORENCE, S.C. — Sliding into a red vinyl booth, Rick Perry pulled out his Blackberry to show photos of his family to Stephanie Rawlinson, her husband and their two daughters.

The family chatted with the Texas governor over onion rings and club sandwiches midday Tuesday, as he ate lunch with them at The Drive-In Restaurant — the town’s 55-year-old burger joint that also serves gyros and baklava as a nod to the area’s strong Greek influence.

The girls weren’t used to so much attention.

“I don’t understand how we’re supposed to get outa here,” said 9-year-old Mary Catherine, looking at the mass of photographers and video cameras that hovered around the booth throughout the 45-minute lunch.

It was Mr. Perry’s second visit to this town of less than 40,000 residents, located in the southeastern part of the state about an hour and a half drive from Myrtle Beach.

After beginning the meal with a blessing, he discussed barbeque, energy policy and Tim Tebow (he’s a big fan) with the Rawlinsons. Mary Catherine handed him her report card to sign, while her younger sister Ella inquired as to whether he owns any horses (he used to).

When the conversation got around to favorite foods, Mr. Perry won nods of approval when he said he favors chicken-fried steak — a dish the girls know as “Minute steak,” Mrs. Rawlinson told them.

Mr. Perry was already a favorite of Mrs. Rawlinson, vice chairman of the county’s Republican Party. She said she is trying to make up her mind between voting for him or Newt Gingrich. She’s been disappointed by Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney — who she knocked off her list just that morning, she told The Washington Times.

Earlier that day, Mr. Romney had stumped just a few miles away at the Florence Civic Center. But after his staff treated the local party members and volunteers poorly, some jumped ship and went over to a nearby event held by Mr. Gingrich, Mrs. Rawlinson said.

“His staff was as rude to our local party as they could possibly be,” she said, her words marked with a distinct Southern lilt. “Their behavior was atrocious and they were just rude. Our volunteers left the event and went to the Gingrich event because they were so rude to them.”

Nor was Mrs. Rawlinson impressed by Mr. Santorum, who on Sunday canceled an appearance in Florence scheduled for later in the week.

“I’m a person that you’ve got to be good to your word, and he made a promise to this party locally that he didn’t fulfill,” she said.

Unfortunately for Mr. Perry, most South Carolinians don’t share her feelings about the candidates, with the Texas governor polling far below the others at 5-6 percent, just days before the Saturday primary.

But the Rawlinsons liked Mr. Perry even more after eating with him, saying they were impressed by his knowledge and his demeanor.

“Mitt Romney, he ran by me and never shook my hand or spoke to me and this man sat down and had a conversation with me and my family,” Mrs. Rawlinson said. “You could tell just listening to him talking about normal things that he’s as smart as any of the rest of them.”

“I don’t think he necessarily feels like he has to show everyone how intelligent he is,” said her husband, Kevin Rawlinson. “Talking to him and listening to him, you can tell he’s very knowledgable.”

After Mr. Perry finished his lunch, he posed for photos with diners.

One of them was a life-long Democrat. Describing herself as a “yellow-dog Democrat” — a term used to describe a Southern voter so devoted to the party that they’d rather vote for a dog than a Republican — Linda Hayes said the GOP is about to get her first vote ever.

“This eighth-generation, yellow-dog Democrat is voting for Rick Perry,” she said. “I like him and he’s cute.”

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