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Up close with Rick Perry's Hail Mary

By Peter Hamby, CNN National Political Reporter
updated 5:26 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
  • "Hambycast" follows Rick Perry's retail politicking in South Carolina
  • Perry wrapped his visit around his alma mater's football game against South Carolina
  • Texas governor recently indicted in what supporters see as a Democratic witch hunt

Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) -- Before the football game, there was lunch. And before lunch, Rick Perry said a prayer.

Perry, a devout evangelical Christian, prayed for the health and safety of the Republicans in the room and their families. He prayed for American troops overseas. And he prayed for President Obama. "We ask you to be with our President, give him wisdom, and open his eyes. In your most holy name. Amen." He paused. "OK, fried chicken."

At that, the two-dozen garnet and black-clad South Carolinians made for the barbecue, mac-and-cheese, fried chicken and banana pudding laid out before them in all their high-caloric splendor.

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Perry, the Texas governor and likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, was here at Doc's Barbecue last week headlining a small fundraiser for a state representative named Kirkman Finlay -- the kind of early, IOU-collecting legwork one does in a key primary state when running for president, and the kind of back-slapping environment in which Perry, a masterful retail politician, thrives.

We decided to track Perry throughout this spectacle for the first episode of "Hambycast," our new weekly digital series that will look at campaign politics as it actually happens, far away from the scripted events, the self-serious punditry and the kind of buttoned-up Washington tedium that turns so many of us off.

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I figured South Carolina, my favorite political state, would be a good place to start. I also figured I could drink a beer and watch some football in the process. I was right on both counts.

Perry framed most of his two-day visit to the Palmetto State last week around the South Carolina versus Texas A&M football game, the nationally televised season opener for the SEC and the official start of college football season.

He appeared on local television and sports radio to talk up A&M, his alma mater, in a tried-and-true strategy to make him seem like just-one-of-the-guys. It's the kind of thing that Mitt Romney, who once praised "the crucible of sport" during an appearance on "Monday Night Football," was never good at.

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Coming off a grand jury indictment back home, Perry was touring New Hampshire, South Carolina and Iowa and basking in the attention of GOP activists who saw the criminal charges in exactly the way Perry hoped they would: as a Democratic witch hunt conducted against a governor who was just doing his job. People were lining up to see him. It was hard to imagine him getting the same kind of reception before the August 15 indictment.

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Perry, holding court in the stadium parking lot in a tailgate-friendly "Cockaboose" owned by a local Republican power broker, greeted a cascade of GOP well-wishers, including South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, Rep. Joe Wilson and a small horde of college Republicans. At Perry's side were his state fixer, former GOP chairman Katon Dawson, as well as a trio of loyal political aides and a retinue of state troopers.

Check out the episode to see it for yourself.

There's much more to come for "Hambycast" and many more miles to go until 2016. Soundtrack ideas welcome. Hit me up with your ideas on Twitter at @PeterHambyCNN.

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