Orlando, Florida

“Howdy,” Rick Perry says, welcoming the crowd at the Rosen Center Hotel. It's hours before Thursday's debate, and the Texas governor is speaking to activists participating in a “Meet and Greet” pre-debate party organized by the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Perry's the last presidential candidate to address the gathering.

The others relied mainly on their stump speeches. Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum played up their social conservatism to energized crowds, while Newt Gingrich once again asked for support to “fundamentally” change the course of the United States. Mitt Romney presented his case rather simply: “I’m a business guy.”

And Perry, too, sounds at first much like the poor son of West Texas with whom we’ve become familiar. “My conservative values…I learned in that little place called Paint Creek,” he says. “I’m proud to be the son of tenant farmers.”

Perry recognizes the Floridian conservative activists that fill the room. “I’ve enjoyed traveling across this state, getting to know a lot of folks in recent weeks, campaigning the only way I know how,” he says. “As a true believer…in conservative principles that have made our country great.”

Then, he throws a a jab or two at Romney, who at the September 12 debate dismissed Perry’s success at job creation as a result of Texas having “four aces” to start with. “I can tell you one thing, I wasn’t born with four aces in my hand,” Perry shoots back, nine days later. “We weren’t wealthy with material things, but we were sure rich in a lot of other things.”

Perry offers up plenty of red meat, too, castigating the “nanny state” and offering readymade applause lines like this: “Some people say that America’s in decline. I disagree. Washington, D.C. is in decline.”

But after Perry runs through his record of creating jobs in Texas, he lowers his voice, in volume and in tone. “Let me close with this final thought,” he says. The audience, once raucous, is suddenly rapt.

“As governor, I have to make a great deal of decisions with consequences over the years,” he says. “I couldn’t have done so without being driven to my knees on many occasions. As I campaign for president, I not only ask you for your vote and your support.” He pauses, then continues: “I ask you for your prayers. I ask you to pray for our country. I ask you to pray for our president, to give him wisdom, to open his eyes. And I ask for your prayers for the health and the healing of our country.”

For a moment, he's a different Rick Perry, fluid and serious. He's sounding a bit more like his predecessor in the governor's mansion, George W. Bush, who frequently discussed his personal faith. The thousand or so in this faithful crowd don't, for once, respond with whoops or hollers. They sit back and listen.

“My concern is not whether God is on my side,” Perry says, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln. “My greatest concern is to be on God’s side.”

The audience stands to their feet to applaud.

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