VOTE 2012

Rick Perry drops out of GOP presidential race

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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Thursday dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination and endorsed Newt Gingrich, adding a fresh layer of unpredictability to the campaign two days before the South Carolina primary.

(Photo: Flickr/eschipul)

"Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?" Perry said. He called the former House speaker a "conservative visionary" best suited to replace Barack Obama in the White House.

While the ultimate impact of Perry's decision is unclear, it reduced the number of conservative challengers to Mitt Romney.

The decision also reinforced the perception that Gingrich is the candidate on the move in the final hours of the South Carolina campaign, and that the front-running Romney is struggling to hold onto his longtime lead.

Perry had scarcely finished speaking when Gingrich issued a statement welcoming the endorsement. "I ask the supporters of Governor Perry to look at my record of balancing the budget, cutting spending, reforming welfare, and enacting pro-growth policies to create millions of new jobs and humbly ask for their vote," Gingrich said.

Romney reacted by praising Perry for running "a campaign based upon love of country and conservative principles" and saying he "has earned a place of prominence as a leader in our party."

Perry's exit marked the end of a campaign that began with soaring expectations, but quickly faded. He shot to the head of the public opinion polls when he announced his candidacy last summer, but a string of poor debate performances soon led to a decline in support.

His defining moment came at one debate when he unaccountably could not recall the third of three federal agencies he has promised to abolish.

Perry could only manage to say, "Oops." Making fun of himself afterward, he told reporters: "I stepped in it."

Perry's decision to endorse Gingrich does not necessarily mean conservatives will rally behind the former House speaker. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a champion of the anti-abortion issue, is still in the race and over the weekend was endorsed by a group of evangelical leaders.

And there's no guarantee that the Texas donors who fueled Perry's bid will shift to Gingrich, even if the governor asks them to.

Romney has been working to court them in recent weeks, having made repeated visits to Texas to meet with major Republican donors. He also won the backing of former President George H.W. Bush. Several Perry supporters, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly discussing their next steps before Perry's announcement, said they have been approached by Romney's campaign and will support him as the most-likely candidate to face President Barack Obama in November.

At least three so-called "super" political action committees have sprung up since early 2011 supporting Perry. One, Americans for Rick Perry, raised about $193,000 during the first half of 2011, federal election records show.

But none of the groups has been more prominent than Make Us Great Again, which aired more than $3.3 million worth of ads in Iowa and South Carolina supporting the Texas governor. A spokesman for the group did not immediately return calls from the AP seeking comment about whom, if anyone, the PAC would support after Perry drops out.

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