Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s departure from the Republican presidential race on Thursday does not release a large pool of South Carolina voters suddenly looking for another candidate – nearly every poll shows his support languishing below 6 percent. But Perry’s supporters nonetheless could become an important swing vote in the state in Saturday’s primary, particularly since he has endorsed Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker from Georgia is already gaining on front-runner Mitt Romney in the South’s first primary, polling shows, and a late surge of Perry supporters could fuel his newfound momentum.
“If (Perry) chooses to endorse another candidate, that would gather a lot of attention or accelerate momentum for that candidacy,” said Phil Musser, a Republican consultant unaffiliated with any of the campaigns but supportive of Romney’s candidacy.
Perry, who towered above even Romney in national polls after entering the race in August, scrapes the bottom of surveys now. An NBC News/Marist poll released on Thursday showed him at just 4 percent, roughly equivalent to the 6 percent support he received in the state in a CNN/Time/ORC International poll released a day earlier. Musser cautioned that Perry’s supporters won’t move as a monolithic group, but rather will likely splinter among Romney, Gingrich, and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
But it stands to reason that Gingrich and Santorum, regardless of who gets Perry’s endorsement, are best positioned to benefit. The Texas governor, particularly as his candidacy faded, drew his backing almost exclusively from the party’s populist wing. His message, which derided President Obama’s “war on religion” and touted his status as a Washington outsider, was tailor-made for blue-collar, evangelical voters.
Perry has battled with Gingrich and Santorum for the support of that voting bloc for months – his exit now leaves the two remaining candidates locked in a duel.
Chip Felkel, an unaligned Republican consultant based in South Carolina, said, “He knew he was going to have a pretty dismal showing.” By pulling the plug now, Felkel said, Perry “gets to be the team player. He gets out before he finishes at the bottom of the pack, and he saves what little face he can at this point.”
The added bonus for Gingrich is that Perry's announcement overtook the day’s headlines, which otherwise would have been dominated by a ballot recount in Iowa that showed Santorum beating Romney by 34 votes. With eight precincts unaccounted for, and written off as lost for good, GOP officials in Iowa declared the results a tie. Perry’s departure “steps all over Santorum’s story about actually winning Iowa,” Felkel said. He said the Perry news could also divert attention from another big story developing Thursday -- a negative portrayal of Gingrich from his ex-wife in an ABC News interview.
Romney certainly had not written off picking up some of Perry’s support, and lavished praise on him. “He's a great conservative, a great man, he made a real contribution -- he already has -- to his state and to our country.”
Perry discussed dropping out with advisors Wednesday night, but did not make the final decision until this morning, according to a senior campaign aide. Several senior advisors were caught off guard by the decision. One top strategist was on the treadmill when he heard the news.
Reid Wilson and Jill Lawrence contributed to this story.