Rick Perry's big news was broken at Wendy's

Posted Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012

By Dave Montgomery

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

The Texas governor'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 his reach.

But then he stumbled in a debate in Florida. Then came the "oops" moment. The hole kept getting deeper and deeper, and, despite his vigorous efforts to climb out, he never did.

Perry withdrew from the 2012 presidential race Thursday in another hotel in North Charleston, only a few miles away from his campaign launching point. The euphoric beginning of mid-summer had been replaced by the harsh reality of mid-winter, the stoic acceptance that the campaign was over.

Just hours before he ultimately decided 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.

Sullivan, who served as Perry's chief of the staff in the governor's office before becoming the campaign's communications director, said the governor hinted of a possible withdrawal from the race as they were flying from Greenville to Charleston on Wednesday afternoon to prepare for a Republican debate the following night.

"He made some comments on the airplane that made me curious," Sullivan told reporters Thursday after Perry's press conference. "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 a fast-food dinner at Wendy's. He told Sullivan that he planned "to respect the voters of South Carolina" by withdrawing from the race, 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 to tell reporters late Wednesday afternoon that Perry planned to battle it out through the primary, dismissing widening speculation that withdrawal was imminent.

Perry apparently knew his candidacy was over when he appeared at a pro-life forum Wednesday evening. Aides and family members, including Texas First Lady Anita Perry, gathered in the Perrys' hotel room that night 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. There were aides around, but this was a Perry decision."

Perry reaffirmed his decision the next day and the campaign sent out a one-sentence media advisory at 8:25 a.m., announcing that Perry planned an 11 a.m. press conference. The advisory offered no further details, but within minutes news outlets were reporting that Perry planned to end his candidacy and endorse former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a political ally who wrote the foreword to one of Perry's books.

Sullivan said the governor called Gingrich about an hour before the news conference to tell him of his plans. No other candidates were contacted by Perry, Sullivan said.

A once-bright future

When he entered the race, Perry offered a resume that seemed tailor-made for a bright future in 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 while other states were struggling. Strong appeal with the tea party, anti-abortion advocates and social conservatives.

Perry did relatively well in his first debate in California, despite rivals' attacks seeking to puncture his new status as frontrunner. But he struggled in subsequent debates, possibly because of fatigue from recent back surgery, Perry would say later. His debating 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 despite the decline, Perry relentlessly forged ahead, relying heavily on his proven 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 the disappointing results, Perry appeared close to scrapping his campaign. He huddled with family and aides in his hotel room and then appeared before supporters about an hour later, saying that he planned to return to Texas to reassess his campaign.

But the next day he changed his mind on a mid-morning run and tweeted his intentions to press into South Carolina. He abandoned his candidacy in New Hampshire to concentrate on the first-in-the south primary and got only one percent of the vote in the Granite State.

Even amid the disappointing poll numbers, Perry seemed to connect with voters as he appealed for support in coffee shops, barbecue joints, truck stops and fairs. Many said they liked his home-spun Texas style and straight-talking demeanor, as well as his pledge to take a sledge-hammer to Washington's big-spend

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