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Is This Any Way to Run for President?

Could Gov. Rick Perry have been right when he decided to reassess his campaign after the Iowa disaster and, again, when he quickly decided to soldier on to South Carolina? Maybe.

Gov. Rick Perry announcing on Jan. 3, 2012, that he's returning to Texas to reassess his campaign after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

The whole thing oozes competence and confidence, doesn’t it? Gov. Rick Perry got kicked in the stomach in Iowa on Tuesday night, whispered “uncle,” slept it off and stepped right back into the fight after he went for a run Wednesday morning.

Is this any way to run for president?

Perry went to Iowa, in trouble after a series of tragic-comic debate performances, and doubled down, spending $2.9 million on TV in December, according to The Des Moines Register, in addition to $1.3 million in ads from a pro-Perry Super PAC. Perry’s team predicted that he would finish third, or maybe even first, in the Jan. 3 caucuses.

He finished fifth.

That comes out to about $333 per vote, an amount known in Texas as Tony Sanchez money, after the Laredo Democrat who lost to Perry in 2002 after spending $70 million on the governor’s race.

After most of the votes were counted and his place in the hearts of Iowa Republicans was fixed, Perry read a mash note from a Texas supporter, a recent college grad who went to Iowa to put up a slew of Perry signs and knock on a gazillion doors. Perry choked up a little, as did the first lady, Anita. Their kids stood behind them. The governor talked about the campaign, in past tense. Then came the surprise:

“But with the voters’ decision tonight in Iowa, I decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight’s caucus, determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race.”

Everybody scrambled to start on the political obituary of the latest Texan to ride the hero-to-goat roller coaster in a presidential contest. That tram now has cars named for John Connally and Phil Gramm; the one named for Rick Perry is all but complete.

But Perry got up the next morning, went for a jog and then redirected a good number of America’s political reporters with a single Tweet: “And the next leg of the marathon is the Palmetto State ... Here we come South Carolina!!!”

It’s a stretch, but it is possible that his instincts were correct both times. On Tuesday night, the story was that the other Rick — Santorum, of the sweater vest and the pickup truck — had surged into a dead heat with the tepid front-runner Mitt Romney, and that the Texas iconoclast Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich had grabbed the third and fourth spots. Perry was out in the alley with Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman. Outside of his home state, he wasn’t in the top three paragraphs of anyone’s story about Iowa.

No matter. Perry is basically an optimist, especially on the subject of his politics. He had his cry, such as it was, on election night. After he got his endorphins going with a morning run, it hit him: Only four of the Not Romneys were left, really, and one was a libertarian with a newsletter, one was a northerner who lost an election in his own state and one was a crabby Washington insider. Maybe voters in South Carolina would appreciate his grit and his Southern sensibility and his church-going ways. Maybe he would feel more at home, and they would feel like he was one of theirs.

Maybe they’re so uninspired by their front-runner and so disenchanted with the other Not Romneys that they’ll give him another shot.

He swung into the regional thing as he re-entered the fray, referring to Iowa and its caucuses, like a guy who’s never going back there again, as “a quirky place, and a quirky process, to say the least.”

“We’re going to go into places where they have real primaries and there will be real Republicans voting,” Perry said, complimenting his future hosts with a towel-snap at the voters who spanked him the night before.

He did leave a nice word for the 10.3 percent who supported him, but not for the caucuses, which he suggested were polluted with actual Democratic voters. “Not that there aren’t real Republicans here in Iowa,” he said. “But the fact is that it’s a pretty loosey-goosey process.”

Perry will visit New Hampshire briefly, but the critical battleground for him is in South Carolina. As long as nobody else can grab a convincing lead, he can still say with a straight face that he has a path forward.

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