Texas Monthly's Nate Blakeslee contributed to this report.
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Rick Perry is going home for some "prayer and reflection" to decide whether to continue his presidential quest after a dismal fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday.
"I decided to return to Texas to assess the results of tonight’s caucus, to determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race," Perry said in an emotional speech late Tuesday night.
Perry's decision to cancel plans to fly to South Carolina on Wednesday represented an abrupt reversal from his vow only two hours earlier. He had said he would keep going no matter what. Top aides also had said repeatedly that the governor would soldier on regardless of his showing here.
Some Perry supporters, including Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, expressed hope that Perry will stay in the race.
"I still think he is the proven conservative," Dewhurst said. The lieutenant governor, now running for the U.S. Senate, said Perry suffered from the effects of his July 1 back surgery and a relatively late entry into the race.
University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said he would be surprised if Perry did not exit the race. He said a temporary suspension in the heat of a presidential campaign usually turns into a permanent one.
“When you were once the front-runner and you do that badly, reassess to me means get out," Sabato said. "That’s the logical thing to do. Candidates don’t always do the logical thing.”
Sabato said most of Perry's woes were self-inflicted.
"Perry didn't cut it. It's cruel but true," he said. "The debates killed him. The verbal gaffes. He just wasn't ready."
Perry, once the Republican front-runner, had little to hang a future on with a distant fifth-place showing in Iowa. Texas Congressman Ron Paul came in third, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were battling it out in a nail-biter race for first place.
Paul said from his Iowa campaign headquarters that he was "raring and ready to move on" to the next contest in New Hampshire.
"We will go on, we will raise the money," he said.
With nearly all the votes in, Perry was 3 percentage points behind former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished in fourth place. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, an Iowa native who had won the state's GOP straw poll in August, came in sixth place; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa, finished last.
Perry had remained defiant to the end, saying at about 9 p.m. that he planned to keep campaigning and he held out hope that the results would shift as the hours wore on.
"It's still early in the evening. There is still a lot of hope and excitement hear at the Sheraton Hotel," Perry said, speaking to a Fox News anchor from the middle of a ballroom at his hotel in West Des Moines, where supporters and campaign staffers were gathered for what was supposed to be a victory celebration.
"We'll wait to see in the morning what it looks like," Perry said. Perry had about a dozen events scheduled over the next three days in South Carolina, but all that has been canceled.
The governor had spent millions on TV ads in Iowa, and over the last three weeks he took a meandering bus tour through the Iowa countryside, visiting more than 40 cities.
His fundraising has already taken a big hit, and the Iowa drubbing was the last thing Perry needed. The governor had rocketed to the top of the polls when he announced his candidacy in August, but faltered after poor debate performances and intense questioning over his support for in-state tuition for certain illegal immigrants.
Urbandale physician Steve Craig met Perry at the Point of Grace Church Tuesday night, where the Texas governor tried to convince voters in person that he was the best alternative in the crowded GOP race. Craig, a Romney supporter, was not convinced Perry could handle a race against President Obama.
"I just don't think he does well under pressure in the debates," Craig said. He also said the governor had offered unrealistic proposals for a part-time Congress and a dismantling of the Washington establishment.
"I want somebody with real ideas," Craig said.
After the results began trickling in Tuesday evening, Perry's Iowa campaign director, Bob Haus, said the campaign had been holding out hope for a higher percentage. There had been so many twists and turns in this election that he didn't know what would happen.
"This has been the strangest cycle I've ever been through," Haus said. "We really entered tonight without knowing what to expect."
Meanwhile, in Ankeny, Iowa, Paul seemed revved up by his apparent third-place finish — and so did his supporters, many of them young, and out in force to propel him in the caucuses.
"There’s nobody else that has people like you that are working hard and enthusiastic and believe in something," Paul told the crowd. "That is all the difference in the world."
Carl Bisenius, 19, said Paul’s stance on war — that cutting funding for it will help alleviate the national debt — was the most important factor in his support of the Texas congressman.
“A lot of my friends are either Democratic or Independent and switching over just to vote for him in caucus,” Bisenius said.
In his remarks, once his third-place finish became clear, Paul said that his campaign had made great strides in promoting a number of causes, particularly in the area of foreign policy.
Army Corporal Jesse Thorsen, 28, of West Des Moines, showed up to caucus wearing his fatigues. He, too, supports Paul’s military policy — but for a slightly different reason. “He’s a military man himself so when it comes to budget cuts in military, I think he’ll do it in the right way,” Thorsen said.
Not everyone was thrilled that Paul hadn't landed even higher in the caucus. “I hoped he would do better. I hoped for first or second,” said Margaret Ussery of Des Moines, adding, "He’s got so many good things to say. I’m glad people are listening to him.”