AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the presidential race on Thursday, endorsed his old friend Newt Gingrich and returned home to Texas, where the failed White House candidate has three years left to serve as the chief executive.
"I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path to victory for my candidacy in 2012," Perry said in North Charleston, S.C., just two days before the primary there. "I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country."
Money also was a factor, with spokesman Ray Sullivan saying: "We have spent the bulk of our funds." He added that Perry hasn't ruled out running again for governor or the White House in 2016 if President Barack Obama is re-elected.
Perry ended his campaign where he launched it last August, when tea party and evangelical Christian leaders hailed him as a charismatic conservative and some early polls showed him as a front-runner for the Republican nomination. But soon after, Perry's verbal gaffes and poor debate performances sent his campaign into a tailspin from which it never recovered.
It was too soon to tell whether Perry's rocky turn on the national stage had damaged him politically at home. But already there were signs of his diminished clout.
Several Texas donors who fueled his bid indicated they were likely to back Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is considered the more moderate candidate in the race. And South Carolina House speaker David Wilkins, who had supported Perry, ignored the governor's recommendation and shifted his support to Romney, too.
Short of a Gingrich victory leading to a job for Perry in Washington, Perry will most likely stay in Austin where — despite his dismal presidential campaign — he's still considered the most powerful politician in the state. He has appointed more than 1,000 people to key government positions since becoming governor in 2000. State lawmakers also depend on his support.
But that doesn't mean he won't face serious headwinds.
Democrats insist the failed presidential run has diminished his power and embarrassed Texans. Conservatives also have complained about the $2.6 million the state has spent on his security detail while he campaigned outside the state. Top Republicans, meanwhile, have been positioning themselves to replace him whether he won the presidency or retired in 2014.
Roy Blount, a Perry supporter and deep-pocketed Republican donor in Texas, said he expected Perry to remain popular and powerful.
"Everything he stood for resonates with Texans," Blount said. "He's got this state as a leading state, and he wants to continue that and expand it."
The Texas Democratic Party was ready Thursday to begin exploiting any perceived weakness created by Perry's decision and called on him to focus on problems at home, including legal questions about the constitutionality of the school finance system as well as water shortages and greenhouse gas emissions.
Perry's biggest supporters, in turn, welcomed him home. Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business, said "Gov. Perry has always been good for Texas business."
Mark Jones, chairman of political science department at Rice University, said Perry risks becoming a lame-duck governor and must not rule out seeking a fourth term if he hopes to continue being effective.
"As long as he can maintain the illusion that he could be governor through 2019, that allows him to maintain authority not only among the legislators, but also among donors, lobbyists and his appointees," Jones said.
Perry's early missteps called into question whether the Texas politician who had never lost a race in nearly 30 years 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Perry also risked backlash from elderly voters after calling Social Security a fraud and a "Ponzi scheme." He said the popular federal retirement program for seniors was financially unsustainable and pledged to retool it if elected.Comment on this story
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."
Associated Press writers Beth Fouhy, David Espo and Jim Davenport in South Carolina and Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.