Texas Governor Rick Perry, who entered the 2012 Republican presidential race with sky-high expectations but quickly stammered his way back to earth, summoned an eloquence he often lacked on the trail as he ended his campaign today and endorsed Newt Gingrich.
In the process, Perry did his best to rally conservatives for one final assault on frontrunner Mitt Romney, who has faced a year’s worth of announced and proposed rivals but succeeded over the long run in fending them off one-by-one.
The former Massachusetts governor may end up winning his party’s nomination, but it will only be after a large and vocal segment of its members made clear he is not their choice either to take on President Obama or lead the country into the future.
“I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country,” Perry said during a news conference held in North Charleston, S.C., near where he announced his candidacy in August and the site of a debate in which he was to have participated tonight.
Seeking to inoculate Gingrich not only from a replay of his own previous criticisms of the House speaker but also social conservative complaints about his three marriages, Perry vouched for his character.
“We’ve had had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have, and Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?” Perry asked with biblical phraseology. “But the fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God. And I believe in the power of redemption, for it is a central tenet of my Christian faith. I have no question that Newt Gingrich has the heart of a conservative reformer, the ability to rally and captivate the conservative movement, the courage to tell those Washington interests to take a hike, if that is what is in the best interest of our country.”
A CNN poll yesterday showed Gingrich closing to within 10 points of Romney, a gap that could be narrowed with additional support from Perry backers (who garnered 6 percentage points in the poll) and closed with the backing of undecided voters.
“This will matter in South Carolina,” Senator Lyndsey Graham of South Carolina, who has not endorsed any candidate in the race, told the Globe during an interview. “I think it will be helpful to Newt. Rick Perry was never disliked in South Carolina. People like the governor, they like his wife, they appreciate his record.”
Romney labeled Perry a “terrific guy, terrific conservative,” and said, “We’re going to miss him on the stage tonight.”
Perry was urged to run for president by conservatives seeking a different choice than Romney, a 2008 candidate who displayed the trappings of an early frontrunner for the 2012 nomination.
Donald Trump and Chris Christie and Michele Bachmann were once envisioned for the same role, with the Minnesota congresswoman being the only among the three to join Perry in the race.
Perry himself announced his candidacy on Aug. 13, the same day the rest of the field competed in the Iowa Straw Poll.
Bachmann ended up winning that vote, but Perry stole the spotlight from her with his announcement speech in South Carolina and an appearance several hours later in Greenland, N.H.
“The fact is for the three years now that President Obama has been in office, he’s been downgrading American jobs, he’s been downgrading our standing on the world, he’s been downgrading our financial stability, downgrading the hope of a better future for our children,” Perry told a crowd of over 150 gathered around the pool of a Seacoast home.
“It’s time to get America working, folks, and that’s the reason I am announcing my candidacy today to be president of the United States.”
Yet Perry’s poll numbers began a steady decline, which only accelerated after a round of debates that started two days after Labor Day.
He started strong with answers about illegal immigration and capital punishment, but he stumbled when asked about his labeling of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and his proposal to require that Texas teenaged girls receive a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease.
Two months later, he bottomed out in another debate, as Perry forgot the name of the third of three federal agencies he would eliminate if elected president.
“The third agency of government I would do away with (pause), the Education, the, uh, Commerce, and, let’s see (pause), I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry,” said Perry. “Oops.”
It was more like - poof! - for his campaign.
Over time, Perry retrenched his campaign focus and team of advisers. He also shifted from a professed 50-state campaign to one concentrating on Iowa.
When he ended up finishing a disappointing fifth in the Jan. 3 caucuses, he nearly quit. But, after a jog the following morning, he announced he would continue on and wage a final bid for the nomination in the potentially more-welcoming social conservative environment in South Carolina.
Nonetheless, the latest polls showed him faring no better than fifth in the five-man field heading into Saturday’s voting, so he decided to quit.
That decision leaves four candidates: Romney, Gingrich, US Representative Ron Paul of Texas, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Paul has a loyal following of libertarian followers but has failed to generate mainstream appear.
That means Perry’s exit with accentuate posturing between Gingrich and Santorum for the role as conservative alternative to Romney.
And with his endorsement, the Texan is trying to ensure that it Gingrich.
Romney is hoping that won’t be enough to make a longterm difference, and ultimately that even if some conservatives never warm up to him, he can take consolation a year from tomorrow by being the Republican to sit down at the desk in the Oval Office.
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.