Perry says he’s dropping out of presidential race

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.

“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. He joked about it
afterward, but never recovered from the fumble.

Romney, the former
Massachusetts governor considered the more moderate candidate in the
race, has benefited thus far from having several conservative
challengers competing for the same segment of voters. New polls show
Romney leading in South Carolina but Gingrich gaining steam heading into
Saturday's contest in a state where conservatives hold great sway in
choosing the GOP nominee.

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.

Perry entered the race last
August to great fanfare and high numbers in polls. But his standing
quickly fell after a series of gaffes and other verbal missteps. Those
errors called into question whether the Texas politician who had never
lost a race during his three-decade career in elected office was ready
for the national stage.

His biggest flub came in a
nationally televised debate in early November, when he could not
remember the name of the third Cabinet department he pledged to
eliminate.

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

It was a cringe-inducing
moment replayed more than a million times on YouTube. The memory lapse
not only solidified Perry's reputation for weak debate performances, it
gave the impression that he couldn't articulate his own policies. The
stumble further tamped down his already faltering poll numbers.

Perry, 61, was relatively
unknown outside of Texas until he succeeded George W. Bush as governor
after Bush was elected president in 2000. A former Democrat, Perry had
already spent about 15 years in state government when he became
governor. He went on to win election to the office three times – the
most recent was in 2010 – to become the state's longest-serving chief
executive.

Part of Perry's appeal came
from his humble beginnings as a native of tiny Paint Creek, Texas. He
graduated from Texas A&M University and was a pilot in the Air Force
before winning election in 1984 to the Texas House of Representatives.
He switched to the GOP in 1989, and served as the state's agriculture
commissioner before his election as lieutenant governor in 1998.

Perry's success as a
politician suggested he would be a strong competitor to Obama. He had
never lost a race in Texas, and his fight against Sen. Kay Bailey
Hutchison for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2010 showed how
tough he could be on a rival.

Perry picked Aug. 13 for
his official announcement speech, the same day as the Iowa Straw Poll.
While rival Michele Bachmann won that poll, the Texas governor cast a
shadow over her victory by challenging her as conservatives' best hope
for winning the nomination and defeating Obama.

He entered near the top of
some polls. But his support of a Texas policy to allow children of
illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates soon proved to be
problematic with conservatives nationwide. So, too, did his 2007 order
that would have required schoolgirls in Texas to be vaccinated against
human papillomavirus. Although state lawmakers overturned the order,
Perry defended the vaccination as necessary to combatting the sexually
transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer.

His performance on the
campaign trail also led to concerns about how his rhetoric would sound
to a national audience. During a campaign stop in Iowa in August, he
suggested that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be
practically committing treason if he were to print more money and said,
“I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him
pretty ugly down in Texas.”

A Perry speech to a New
Hampshire audience in October led to a damaging video, during which he
appeared unusually animated – “loopy” to some observers – a stark
contrast to the image of the serious, starchy governor he had projected.
Amid questions, Perry later told reporters that he hadn't been drinking
or taking medication at the time and called it “a pretty typical speech
for me.”

More flubs followed. While
criticizing the nine-member Supreme Court to a newspaper editorial
board, he referred to “eight unelected and frankly unaccountable judges”
and struggled to come up with the name of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, then
called her “Montemayor.” He urged college students in New Hampshire to
support his candidacy, “those of you that will be 21” on Election Day,
though the voting age is 18.

The widespread criticism of
those performances and his rivals' attacks on his immigration and
vaccination policies led to a significant drop in support.

___

Associated Press writer Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.

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2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not
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