NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Texas Gov. Rick Perry ended his bid for the Republican presidential nomination Thursday morning and endorsed rival Newt Gingrich, further crystallizing the race for the conservative alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.
Saying he saw no viable path to the party’s nomination, Mr. Perry dropped out two days before the South Carolina primary, leaving Mr. Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to fight over the mantle of the mainstream conservative alternative to Mr. Romney.
“I know when it’s time to make a strategic retreat,” Mr. Perry said.
The three-term Texas governor said Mr. Gingrich has “the heart of a conservative reformer,” and he tried to reassure social conservatives that the former House speaker, who has had turbulent personal history, can lead the GOP.
“Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?” he said. “The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God, and I believe in the power of redemption.”
“I ask the supporters of Governor Perry to look at my record of balancing the budget, cutting spending, reforming welfare and enacting pro-growth policies to create millions of new jobs and humbly ask for their vote,” he said.
Mr. Perry said he had entered the race to bring a “unique perspective” of a governor battling the federal government’s overreach.
“What’s broken in America is not our people. It’s our politics. And what we need in Washington is a place that is humbler, with a federal government that is smaller, so that our people can live freer,” he said.
Mr. Perry placed a distant fifth in Iowa and didn’t actively compete in New Hampshire.
His exit leaves the race down to Mr. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who won New Hampshire’s primary; Mr. Santorum, who, according to a just-released recount, actually won the Iowa caucuses over Mr. Romney; Mr. Gingrich, who is making a strong stand in South Carolina; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has placed well in the first two races.
Mr. Perry entered the race in August with high hopes of becoming the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney, boasting a record of strong growth and job creation in his decade as head of the nation’s second most populous state. He sprinted to the front of the Republican polls, building up a huge campaign war chest along the way.
But his star quickly faded following a number of poorly reviewed debate performances, suggesting in one that opponents of the Texas law providing in-state tuition to some children of illegal immigrants were “heartless” and memorably failing to recall the full list of Cabinet agencies he had vowed to abolish as president.
“Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there? — let’s see,” he said. Pressed for the other agency, he eventually gave up, offering a defeated expression and commenting: “I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”