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Perry bows out of GOP race, seeing ‘no viable path to victory’

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry abruptly quit the Republican presidential race Thursday and threw his support behind Newt Gingrich, a move aimed at slowing Mitt Romney’s drive toward the GOP nomination.

“I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path to victory for my candidacy in 2012,” said Perry, his expression taut as he read from a prepared statement before an audience consisting of reporters who rushed to scene for the surprise announcement.

Acknowledging past differences with Gingrich, Perry nevertheless described the former House speaker as “a conservative visionary who can transform our country.”

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The election Perry said, in a seeming poke at Romney, was not just about defeating President Obama, but replacing him “with a conservative leader who will bring about real change.”

“I have no question Newt Gingrich has the heart of a conservative reformer, the ability to rally and captivate the conservative movement and the courage to tell the Washington interests to take a hike if it’s what is best for the country,” Perry said.

In a seeming allusion to Gingrich’s controversial past -- admitted adultery and a series of marriages -- Perry cited his Christian beliefs. “The fact is, there is a forgiveness for those who seek God,” the governor said, “and I believe in the power of redemption.”

Surrounded by grim-faced family members, Perry announced his decision just over five months after he launched his candidacy a few miles away in historic Charleston.

For all intents, Perry’s hapless campaign peaked that day. Indeed, he may have a greater impact in leaving the GOP presidential contest than he did while running.

By exiting two days before the South Carolina primary, Perry narrows the competition among those vying to be the alternative to the front-running Romney. Up to now, the former Massachusetts governor has benefited greatly from the splintering of that vote among several candidates.

The candidate with the most to gain is Gingrich, who has been rising in South Carolina polls as he battles former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul for the anti-Romney mantle.

In a statement issued moments after Perry spoke, Gingrich praised his former rival and urged conservatives to rally behind his candidacy.

“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.

Perry entered the contest buoyed by high expectations and for a time was the leader in national opinion surveys. But a series of poor debate performances -- notably one in which he froze and failed to remember the third of three federal agencies he vowed to eliminate -- turned him into something of a national punch line.

One advisor blamed the back surgery Perry underwent in July before entering the race. “If there is a criticism, it’s that he thought he was Superman,” said the strategist, who did not want to be quoted faulting the candidate. “The pain was unbelievable and not being able to sleep made him groggy and lack focus.”

Perry almost quit the contest after finishing fifth in Iowa’s lead-off caucuses. (A performance that was not altered by Thursday’s announcement of a new vote count, which showed Santorum, and not Romney, narrowly winning.) But his wife, Anita, who joined him onstage Thursday, was among those who talked him into battling on to South Carolina.

In theory, the first Southern primary offered Perry the best opportunity to capitalize on his Texas roots and right his listing campaign. However, the self-inflicted damage Perry suffered as a result of his stumbling debate performances coupled with his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, where he came in well behind Romney and others, proved too much to overcome.

Perry was also running far back, in fifth place, in South Carolina polls, and one advisor said he chose to quit now rather than suffer any further embarrassment on Saturday and further undermine his political future.

Perry told reporters he was not done fighting for the conservative cause. “As a matter a fact, I have just begun to fight,” he said before leaving the room without taking any questions.

Perry became the second campaign casualty of the week. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who was also struggling for traction in South Carolina after a third-place New Hampshire finish, quit the race on Monday and endorsed Romney.

The final debate before Saturday’s primary, a two-hour session Thursday night at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, will now proceed with four candidates on stage.

For Perry, the dispiriting scene in an airport hotel ballroom marks an unprecedented finish. In his more than 30-year political career, he has never lost an election and is the longest-serving governor in Texas history.

After the governor’s announcement, his spokesman and longtime aide Ray Sullivan told reporters that Perry may seek the presidency again in 2016 and that running for a fourth full term as governor was “a strong option.”

Katon Dawson, the chairman of Perry’s South Carolina campaign, put on upbeat gloss on the governor’s exit. “The winner today is the state of Texas. They get the most conservative governor in the United States back,” Dawson said. “Texas ought to be elated, have a ticker tape parade to welcome him back,” Dawson said.

Gleeful Texas Democrats were hardly as charitable.

“‘Oops!’ will be the bumper sticker,” said Matt Angle, a party strategist, who quoted Perry’s comment after his infamous memory lapse. “By falling flat on his face and reminding people of all the things they didn’t like about him, particularly Texans, it increases the morale of Democrats and independents.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Paul West contributed to this report.


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