NORTH CHARLESTON, SC -- Moments after Rick Perry's exit from the GOP presidential race at a hotel north of Charleston, a key Perry supporter in South Carolina expressed deep anger about the system of debates that contributed to the Texas governor's downfall.
"The Republicans have let this become the reality show of presidential politics," said Katon Dawson, a former chairman of the South Carolina GOP. "We've let it be driven it by people who don't like us. We've had debates with people who don't like us. It's obvious when you see the questions, it's obvious when you see the bent of some of these debates. For that hour and a half of earned media, we have let the drive-by shooting of the liberal media come after our Republican candidates unfettered. And that really is the tale of this election cycle."
Perry entered the race -- here in Charleston -- amid great fanfare in August. To some Republicans, he seemed the perfect GOP candidate: an experienced southern governor with an impressive economic record. After a passable performance in the first debate, Perry turned in a number of poor debate performances that led to a rapid fall in the polls. It all culminated in a debate last November in Michigan in which Perry stumbled while trying to name the three cabinet departments he would eliminate as president. The way he ended what seemed to be an interminable period of trying to remember -- simply declaring "Oops" -- seemed the effective end of his campaign.
Perry's supporters argued that his candidacy should be measured by more than debates, and that his record as governor made him a strong contender. But Perry never recovered from the debates, and on Thursday morning Dawson lashed out at the debate-centered process that has arisen in this Republican campaign.
"There's no question that the debates…that's where people gathered their information, and it's changed modern campaigning," Dawson said. "I would contend that regardless of the outcome, the Democrats will never let this happen. They will never let 19 debates -- the Democrats will never let this happen. And the Republicans did, and I don't know how you stop it. It has become a reality show of 30-second soundbites, it's gotcha politics…This has become the political version of 'American Idol.'"
As Dawson spoke, pollster Scott Rasmussen released a new survey of the Republican race. Perry was dead last, with just two percent support.