Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced Thursday he was suspending his presidential campaign and endorsing former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
The announcement came more than two weeks after Perry finished a distant fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and months after he fell dramatically in Republican presidential polls.
Perry started the campaign with the assistance of many conservative evangelical leaders, but they abandoned him after his poor debate performances.
Those leaders now proclaim former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum as the favored one.
With Perry’s poll numbers in South Carolina still in single digits ahead of Saturday’s first Southern primary, the once-favored candidate recognized what most political observers had since his poor Iowa finish.
As Perry explained during his remarks announcing the suspension of his campaign on Thursday, “I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path forward for me in this 2012 campaign.”
After endorsing Gingrich and praising him as “a conservative visionary,” Perry invoked God to extend political forgiveness and grace to Gingrich.
“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is,” Perry said. “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.”
Perry did not explicitly mention Gingrich’s history of affairs and divorces, though Perry attacked Gingrich over them during a presidential debate in December.
“Not only did I make a vow to my wife but I made a vow to God, and that’s pretty heavy lifting in my book,” Perry said when asked if voters should consider marital fidelity when choosing candidates. “I’ve always kind of been of the opinion that if you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner. So I think that issue of fidelity is important.”
Some Southern Baptist leaders also recently shifted their positions to allow Gingrich an opportunity to receive political grace despite his affairs and divorces.
Their positions, however, came before ABC aired an interview with Gingrich’s second wife Thursday evening in which she claimed Gingrich wanted an “open marriage.” Gingrich had already started an affair with his now-third wife – while leading Republicans to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Perry, who officially launched his presidential campaign in August after months of speculation, claimed he had been “called” by God to run.
Perry returned to the theme of being “called” during his speech Thursday.
“I began this race with a sense of calling,” Perry said as he emphasized the word “calling.”
“I felt led into the arena to fight for the future of this country,” he added. “And I feel no different today than I did then – knowing a calling never guarantees a particular outcome but the journey that tests one’s faith and one’s character.”
While Perry said he still feels the same about the campaign as when he entered, most of his conservative evangelical allies already abandoned him to support other candidates.
Most share a concern that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will win the nomination unless they unite behind one candidate.
Last summer, EthicsDaily.com broke the news that Perry met with about 80 conservative evangelical pastors and leaders in a closed-door meeting in Texas organized by evangelist James Robison.
Robison led a similar effort prior to the 1980 presidential election as he sought to defeat then-President Jimmy Carter. That effort culminated in an August 1980 rally in Dallas with the then-Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan as the key speaker.
As Perry announced his presidential bid, he gave a timeframe of when he had decided to run, which coincided with his meeting with Robison’s group.
Several key leaders in Robison’s group helped Perry organize his August prayer rally in a Texas football stadium, which occurred just as Perry announced his presidential intentions.
Riding a wave of national attention from the prayer rally, Perry quickly rose to the top of Republican presidential primary polls.
In late August, Perry met again with a group of evangelical leaders in Texas, and Perry stepped up his outreach to evangelical audiences.
Although Perry started strong in the polls, he dropped dramatically due to poor performances in the debates.
His verbal stumbles resulted in him being replaced by Herman Cain as the top anti-Romney candidate before the former pizza chain chief dropped out following multiple allegations of sexual impropriety.
Gingrich then briefly emerged as the social conservative darling before Santorum surged at the last moment to narrowly win the Iowa caucuses. Gingrich, however, leads Santorum in South Carolina.
With the divided evangelical vote allowing Romney to achieve a virtual tie in Iowa, an easy win in New Hampshire and a chance to win in South Carolina, more than 150 conservative evangelical leaders met privately last weekend on the Texas ranch of former Southern Baptist Convention official Paul Pressler.
After three rounds of contentious voting, the group announced their support for Santorum over Gingrich.
Perry, who had counted on the support of many of those present just a few months earlier, did not make it past the first ballot when his 11 percent put him in a distant third.
The group decided not to ask Perry or Gingrich to drop out of the race, but it became clear leaders hoped candidates would do so to keep the anti-Romney vote from being split in the Palmetto State and beyond.
Even with Perry’s departure, however, Gingrich and Santorum could split the vote and allow Romney to win or come in a close second on Saturday.
Some Gingrich supporters at the recent Texas summit have publicly complained that the vote was rigged.
The suggestion that many Gingrich supporters left between the second and third ballots, however, does not fit with the fact that the vote count only dropped by five between the two rounds.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson reportedly pushed for Santorum between the second and third rounds of voting by contrasting Santorum’s wife as a “role model” and Gingrich’s wife as “a mistress for eight years.”
Shortly after Perry endorsed Gingrich on Thursday, Dobson publicly announced his endorsement of Santorum.
While Dobson and other key conservative evangelical leaders attempt to move voters from Perry to Santorum, others are moving from Perry to Gingrich.
Conservative religious-political activist Rick Green, a former Republican Texas state legislator, had been supporting Perry and campaigned for him in Iowa.
Following Perry’s announcement Thursday morning, Green called Perry’s move “[o]ne of the most selfless, patriotic acts of a politician I have seen in years” because Green believed Perry’s move “could save conservatives from Romney!”
“If only the Rick from PA would be as smart, selfless, & strategic as the Rick from Texas,” Green added. “Get out and back Newt!!!! Conservatives could totally unite and give America a real alternative to Obama.”
Green, who launched a failed political comeback in 2010 as he sought a seat on the Texas Supreme Court, works for pseudo-historian David Barton’s WallBuilders.
Green’s shifting allegiances reflect how many conservative evangelical voters have been throughout this primary season.
If Perry’s supporters split their votes between Gingrich and Santorum, it could help Romney maintain his slight lead in South Carolina.