(CNN) – Rick Perry is set to meet privately with dozens of grassroots Republican activists when he visits the crucial early primary state of South Carolina next week, another sign that the Texas governor is taking steps to join the 2012 presidential race.
Perry will be in Charleston next Saturday to address the RedState Gathering, a conservative conference featuring appearances by Gov. Nikki Haley and Sen. Jim DeMint.
It will be Perry's first appearance in an early caucus or primary state since he began exploring the possibility of a White House bid earlier this summer, ensuring that his speech will garner media attention even as the rest of the political universe descends on Iowa that same day for the Ames Straw Poll.
But the governor is also planning to do some behind-the-scenes legwork in a state likely to play a major role in his nomination strategy if he runs.
Perry backers in South Carolina have reached out to nearly 100 GOP leaders - every county-level Republican Party chairman, members of the state GOP Executive Committee and some tea party activists - to invite them to a closed-door meet-and-greet with the governor.
"It was pitched as a very informal opportunity for us, as leaders of the party, to meet the governor," said Rich Bolen, chairman of the Lexington County Republican Party.
The meetings are being arranged by former South Carolina GOP Chairman Katon Dawson and Republican strategist Walter Whetsell, both of whom were among the clutch of operatives who left former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's sputtering campaign in June.
Dawson and Whetsell have since maintained ties with their fellow former Gingrich aides Dave Carney and Rob Johnson, two of Perry's most trusted political confidantes who are now helping the governor lay the groundwork for a potential campaign.
Dawson said they are setting up the South Carolina meetings in "a volunteer capacity" because there is not yet an official Perry campaign.
"We are certainly encouraging the governor to run and are trying to help him make that decision and we think he would be extremely successful," Dawson said. "We want these party leaders to have a chance to meet Gov. Perry before he makes his final decision to run for president."