NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Year after year, the legend grew, in election night parties that always ended the same way — in victory.
But Rick Perry’s winning streak has finally come to its inglorious end, and the magnitude of the loss is easily as big as the almost 30 years of unbroken triumph.
On Thursday, when he announced his “strategic retreat” from the 2012 presidential race, Perry was standing in a plain conference room at a Hyatt hotel near the Charleston airport.
The Hyatt was a last-minute substitute for the luxurious and more expensive downtown Marriott, its cancellation a final indignity in a campaign that was out of money and in need of a cheap and rapid exit. Perry was standing only a few miles from the historic Francis Marion Hotel in Charleston, where he announced his run for president five months and six days ago.
What happened in between those two events, though, makes them seem almost unconnected.
When the longest-serving Texas governor entered the race on Aug. 13 he quickly rocketed to the top of the polls, emerging as the main challenger to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and racking up endorsements from conservative leaders in the key early states.
But Perry soon fell victim to his own twisted tongue and, eventually, internal tensions so severe that aides spoke of two campaigns — one composed of his loyal Texas staff and a “shadow campaign” made up of Washington, D.C., advisers who had been hired to rescue him.
Dave Carney, the New Hampshire native who had guided Perry through every race since 1998, was sent home, and the campaign manager Rob Johnson became a traveling surrogate in the early states, attending house parties in Iowa, town halls in New Hampshire and phoning in to talk radio shows around the country.
While Johnson kept his title, it was Joe Allbaugh, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign manager, who called the shots. Perry said Allbaugh was brought in to watch his back, although the drill sergeant lookalike was not a popular figure among the Texas contingent.
But it was Allbaugh, a former member of Bush’s old “Iron Triangle,” who gave Perry the advice to return to Texas after the Iowa caucuses to re-think his presidential race — which nearly everyone took to mean drop out.
The governor’s wife, Anita Perry, and their son, Griffin, thought Perry should continue on to the first southern primary, South Carolina, where it had all begun, according to multiple campaign sources.
The plan was for Perry to skip stumping in New Hampshire and camp out here for two weeks, the longest uninterrupted stretch campaigning since he began his star-crossed odyssey.
He kicked things off at the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg on Jan. 8, introduced by the members of the same campaign team that had pulled Bush’s bacon from the fire in 2000 — the former state Republican chairman Katon Dawson and the former South Carolina House Speaker David Wilkins.
“When I got a target in my sight I don’t give up,” Perry told the crowd. “I’ve never quit a day in my life in the face of adversity.”
No one around Perry had illusions that it would be easy. But there was a glimmer of hope that here, in the cradle of the Confederacy, voters would not automatically recoil at swaggering Texans who eat fried chicken livers and say “y’all” a lot. They said perhaps Perry could reverse his long slide.
Instead, the governor slipped even further.
Small crowds greeted him virtually everywhere, and his attacks on Romney’s “vulture capitalism,” the phrase the governor used to describe his rival’s career as a corporate takeover artist at Bain Capital, sparked serious blowback from voters and pundits.
The trappings of a well-financed and successful campaign were also beginning to fade. The logo-wrapped charter bus that Perry had ridden through the Iowa countryside was replaced by Chevy Suburbans.
Gone, too, was the WiFi-equpped bus that a large traveling press corps had occupied in the Hawkeye state. Instead, a handful of die-hard “embed” reporters rode in a 15-passenger van that was sometimes driven by Catherine Frazier, a Perry spokeswoman.
Soon the defections started coming in, at first like scattered shots, then rapid mortar fire, closing in on Perry’s ever-shrinking campaign: A top donor was sickened by the “vulture” comment, a state senator concluded he could not win, a religious leader from Florida read the tea leaves, and a big group of evangelical leaders in Perry’s own state concluded the governor of Texas was not the man to do battle with front-runner Romney.
In the final hours of his candidacy, even many of the dwindling number of voters who showed up at Perry’s rallies had concluded that the governor had almost no chance of winning.
“People are just not with it — they won’t even listen,” said Patricia Pease, 79, a dejected supporter of Perry and a retired real estate broker in Murrells Inlet. Looking around at the empty chairs in the VFW hall where Perry spoke, she stated the obvious: “He can’t win if we can’t get more people here at things like this."
Despite his vow to keep going, Perry seemed to telegraph his mood on Monday when he told pollster Frank Luntz during a televised town hall that he would be fine if he had to “walk away from all this.” Fine, that is, as long as Anita Perry was standing at his side.
That’s where she was when Perry took to the podium in the packed Hyatt “Meeting Place 2,” and he kissed her before walking off stage without taking questions from reporters.
Perry’s longtime aide, Ray Sullivan, later told reporters that it was Perry and his family, not his advisers, who jointly decided it was hopeless on Wednesday afternoon — right about the time Sullivan was emailing reporters that talk of withdrawing before Saturday’s vote was “nuts.”
It’s no small irony that Perry endorsed Newt Gingrich on his way out of the race. Carney and Johnson, Perry’s top advisers before they got pushed aside late last year, had quit Gingrich’s campaign in disgust in June, only to see Perry perform even worse.
If Perry can help Gingrich win an uphill battle against Romney, he might begin salvaging a reputation that took a major hit on the 2012 campaign trail. Beyond that, it is not at all clear what Perry’s future holds.
Sullivan said Perry is holding open the “strong option” of a future run for president and even an unprecedented fourth term as governor, which, if successful, could leave him in office for a total of 18 years.
But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said Perry is most likely finished.
For all the swagger, all the winning, all the never-surrender bravado, Sabato said Perry will go down as the biggest and most dramatic flameout of the 2012 race, remembered more for his gaffe-infused nosedive than the brief moments he spent as the presidential front-runner.
“The poor guy will be dogged forever by the oops moment,” said Sabato, referring to the nationally televised debate in which Perry famously forgot the three federal departments he wanted to shut down. “When people think of Rick Perry they’re going to chuckle. That’s not the reaction you want when you’re running for president.”