Perry made up mind Wednesday, broke the news at Wendy's

Posted Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012  comments  Print Reprints

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CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Gov. Rick Perry broke the news Wednesday to senior aide Ray Sullivan over burgers at Wendy's: The presidential quest that started with such promise was about to end.

Perry's first national campaign folded in the same state where it began just over five months earlier.

On Aug. 13, he jumped into the race at a packed hotel ballroom in Charleston. Within days, Perry was soaring in the polls. The Republican nomination seemed within reach.

But then he stumbled in a debate in Florida. The "oops" moment soon followed. The hole kept getting deeper, and, despite Perry's vigorous efforts to climb out, he never did.

Perry withdrew from the 2012 presidential race Thursday at a hotel in North Charleston, only a few miles from his launching point. The euphoria of midsummer had been replaced by the harsh reality of midwinter, the stoic acceptance that the campaign was over.

Just hours before deciding that there was "no path forward," Perry was still on the campaign trail, shaking hands in a Greenville suburb and urging voters to "have my back" in Saturday's South Carolina primary. But polls showed him mired in single digits at the back of the pack, raising the prospect of his third consecutive defeat.

Sullivan, who was Perry's chief of the staff in the governor's office before becoming the campaign's communications director, said the governor had hinted at withdrawing as they flew from Greenville to Charleston on Wednesday afternoon to prepare for the next night's debate.

"He made some comments on the airplane that made me curious," Sullivan told reporters Thursday after Perry's announcement. "I was asking him what was going to happen on Saturday" after the election. "He said, 'I already know what I'm going to do, and I've got it taken care of.'"

Perry gave his aide the full picture about 8:30 p.m. over the fast-food dinner. He told Sullivan that he planned "to respect the voters of South Carolina" by withdrawing, giving them "the opportunity to choose among candidates in stronger position to move forward."

The governor reached his decision about 4 or 5 p.m., Sullivan said, but didn't disclose his plans immediately. Sullivan and campaign press secretary Mark Miner continued telling reporters that Perry planned to keep running.

Perry apparently knew his bid was over when he appeared at an anti-abortion forum Wednesday evening. Aides and relatives, including his wife, Anita, gathered in the Perrys' hotel room to further discuss the decision.

"It was really a personal and family decision for him," Sullivan said. "The first lady and his family were involved in that."

Perry reaffirmed his decision early Thursday, and his staff sent out a one-sentence media advisory at 8:25 a.m., announcing a news conference that morning. The advisory offered no details, but within minutes, news outlets were reporting that Perry planned to end his candidacy and endorse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Sullivan said the governor informed Gingrich of his plans about an hour before the news conference. He contacted no other candidates, Sullivan said.

Looking back

When he entered the race, Perry offered a résumé that seemed tailor-made for the Republican nomination race: more than a decade as leader of the second-largest state; economic policies that created hundreds of thousands jobs in Texas as other states struggled; a strong appeal with the Tea Party, anti-abortion advocates and social conservatives.

Perry did relatively well in his first debate in California despite his rivals' attempts to puncture his front-runner status. But he struggled in later debates, possibly because of fatigue from recent back surgery, he said later. Perry's low point came with his failure to remember one of three agencies he wanted to eliminate. "Oops," he said after the gaffe.

His poll numbers steadily dropped, but he forged ahead, relying heavily on his skills at grassroots campaigning to work crowds in the early-contest states. He spent more than three weeks on a bus tour of Iowa but came in fifth in the state's caucuses with 10 percent of the vote.

After that disappointment, Perry seemed close to scrapping his campaign. He huddled with family and aides in his hotel room and announced about an hour later that he would return to Texas to reassess his candidacy.

But the next day, he changed his mind on a midmorning run and tweeted his intentions to press on to South Carolina. To concentrate on the first Southern primary, he abandoned his candidacy in New Hampshire and got 1 percent of the vote there.

Even with disappointing poll numbers, Perry seemed to connect with voters as he sought support in coffee shops, barbecue joints and truck stops. He also turned in robust, effective performances in some of the recent debates. Some analysts said things might have been different if Perry's earlier debates had matched the later ones.

But as he appeared in a packed hotel conference room Thursday, Perry acknowledged what, to many, had seemed inevitable for weeks.

"As a Texan, I've never shied away from a fight, particularly when I considered the cause to be righteous," he said. "But as someone who has always admired a great, if not the greatest, Texas governor, Sam Houston, I know when it is time to make a strategic retreat."

Dave Montgomery is the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau chief. 512-476-4294

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

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