With calls for his departure from the presidential race mounting by the day and polls projecting another last-place primary finish, Texas Gov. Rick Perry called it quits Thursday at a hastily called press conference in North Charleston, S.C. On his way out the door, Perry gave a crucial endorsement to Newt Gingrich just as the former House speaker is riding a high in the South Carolina polls.
“I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path for me in this 2012 campaign,” Perry said before announcing that he would endorse Gingrich for president. Calling Gingrich a “conservative visionary who can transform our country,” Perry added, “Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption.”
Perry’s departure from the race on the same day that the Iowa Republican Party acknowledged Rick Santorum’s victory there served as a double blow to Romney’s aura of invincibility in the GOP nomination fight, just as the remaining candidates prepared for a final debate in Charleston Thursday night.
In addition to the boost of good press Perry gave Gingrich, his endorsement could also be pivotal for Gingrich’s lackluster fundraising efforts now that Perry’s deep-pocketed donors will be on the market and looking for a conservative candidate to put their money behind.
Gingrich said he was “humbled” by Perry's endorsement and thanked the governor with a prize only he would think up—by putting him in charge of a yet-to-be-created “10th Amendment enforcement project” to help states fight for their rights against the Obama administration.
Running a pretend commission for Gingrich this summer isn’t exactly what Perry thought he would be up to when he launched his presidential campaign last August to the delight of vocal conservatives and big-money GOP donors, who had practically begged him to make a late entry into the race that had drawn what they saw as a weak and deeply flawed field.
But after a series of hideous debate performances and single-digit finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, some of Perry’s earliest supporters began to jump ship.
The first to go was South Carolina state Sen. Larry Grooms, who had endorsed Perry early in the race, only to announce Monday that he would instead go with Rick Santorum, the only man polling almost as low as Perry in South Carolina. In a statement, Grooms said, "It is apparent that Governor Perry cannot win and has no viable strategy in moving forward."
A colleague of Grooms's in the state Senate, Sen. Lee Bright, told The Daily Beast that Perry's presidential ambitions in South Carolina died the day Grooms jumped ship. "When you have somebody working for your campaign, like Grooms, who says you can't win, that is the death knell for a candidate."
On Wednesday, Erick Erickson, the editor of the powerful conservative blog RedState, did the same. Erickson had introduced Perry at his August campaign kickoff in Charleston, but emphatically called for Perry to quit before Saturday’s primary.
"Conservatives opposed to Mitt Romney will be legitimately able to blame Rick Perry for dragging down either Newt or Santorum's one-way ticket to the nomination," Erickson wrote.
Hours later, radio host Laura Ingraham also called on Perry to leave the race. "I mean, God bless him, but he’s not put in the time to kind of know anything about foreign policy, and you can’t be president if you don’t know anything about foreign policy,” she said on her show.
If there was any doubt Wednesday what was about to happen, it became clear that Perry was not long for this world when his campaign canceled a Wednesday meet-and-greet at Bob Jones University, the epicenter of evangelical education in the country and the equivalent of Santa's workshop for GOP vote seekers in the state.
A young woman at the university said the Perry campaign had canceled the event at the last minute and had not offered a time to reschedule it. "I think it's kind of a done deal," she said.
According to aides, Perry began to call staff and supporters late Wednesday night to tell them that he would leave the race. He said he had simply come to the conclusion after weeks of stumping the South Carolina that there was no way for him to win there or in the next states on the 2012 calendar.
As he wrapped up his press conference Thursday, a smiling Perry insisted America has not seen the last of him yet. “I’m not done fightin’ for the cause of conservatism,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I have just begun to fight."