Rick Perry dropped out of the Republican presidential race and endorsed Newt Gingrich on Thursday morning, delivering a short, jaunty speech to supporters in South Carolina. “I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path forward for me … I am suspending my campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich,” he told supporters in North Charleston. “I am neither discouraged nor disenchanted, but instead rewarded highly by the experience.”
While the Texas governor pulled little support in the polls after a fall full of gaffes sent him limping into near last finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, his move to back Gingrich just two days before the crucial South Carolina primary puts symbolic weight behind the former Speaker’s sprint to unite conservatives against Mitt Romney on Saturday.
In a TIME/CNN poll released on Wednesday, 6% of likely South Carolina voters backed Perry. While the same survey found Romney leading Gingrich by 10 points, and Perry’s supporters are likely to split between Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, momentum is definitely on Newt’s side. His rousing debate performance on Monday night drew effusive reviews from national and state conservatives alike, and a steady flow of unflattering coverage has dogged Romney in recent days — his admission that he probably pays close to a 15% tax rate on his income, much less than most middle-class American workers, was followed by an ABC News piece exposing assets he keeps offshore. (Romney never paid anything less than full U.S. tax rates.)
Perry’s announcement may help cloud some bad news for Gingrich — an interview with his estranged second wife is scheduled to air Thursday evening, in which she’s expected to speak about her ex-husband’s wish for an open marriage. “I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country,” Perry said Thursday. “Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiviness for those who seek God.” The Texan’s departure also sets the stage for a dramatic debate. With the field winnowed to just four candidates — Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Ron Paul — the focus will rarely leave the high-friction onstage dynamic between Gingrich and Romney on Thursday night.
For his part, Perry will return to Texas as damaged goods. The powerful thrice-elected governor upended the GOP nominating contest when he made his late entrance in August, hailed as a Romney killer. But a series of excruciatingly gaffey debate performances in the fall seriously damaged his credibility with Republican power brokers and his early buzz never materialized into votes at the polls. By the end, Perry had become the butt of facile jokes, even when he did nothing wrong. At one recent campaign event, Perry, jesting with the crowd, pretended to call on a mannequin with an upraised hand at the back of the room. Before anyone bothered to check the tape, the story exploded across the Twitterverse. Journalists presumed that Perry has mistaken the wooden women for a real voter.
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But Perry may now have turned the joke on Romney. After deciding against slinking back to Texas when he was dealt a disappointing loss in Iowa, Perry extended his campaign long enough to juice Gingrich’s S.C. surge at a pivotal moment. Romney’s long game still looks unbeatable. But if he suffers a narrow defeat in South Carolina on Saturday, Rick Perry, at long last, will have played his part.
Updated, 11:50 a.m.