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Rick Perry's Ride Into The Sunset Comes Before High Noon

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign Friday. He's shown here at a campaign event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, earlier this summer.
Charlie Neibergall
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry suspended his campaign Friday. He's shown here at a campaign event in Fort Dodge, Iowa, earlier this summer.

As Rick Perry suspended his second campaign for president Friday, it was hard to remember how big a deal his first one had been just four years ago.

Perry was riding high in the saddle in the summer of 2011. He was the thrice-elected governor of the nation's second-most-populous state, which is, by far, the largest source of Republican votes on the map.

He had raised $17 million in his first few weeks in the game, and he brought a grin and a swagger and an attitude to the national stage. (There were no thick nerd glasses in those days.)

Could he talk Southern? Yes.

Did have both country and Western music? Yes.

At the time, Republican conservatives were eagerly seeking an alternative to Mitt Romney, the often-stiff former governor of Massachusetts, who would eventually win the nomination — and lose the general election to President Obama.

There were many hopefuls in the GOP field that summer, but they were either little-known or looking for political comebacks. None seemed to be galvanizing much support in the early going.

Perry swept in on a gusher of Texas money and bravado. His ad firm produced several powerful videos depicting the United States as woefully downtrodden and bewildered under Obama.

In a national Gallup Poll of Republican primary voters, done the first week Perry was a formal candidate, the Texan had vaulted to the top with 29 percent. Romney had fallen to a distant second at 17 percent. Perry's numbers at that point were not unlike those of Donald Trump, whose summer surge to the front of the GOP pack has dominated political news this summer.

So it was a shock, in the fall of 2011, when Perry's performances in the GOP candidate debates were so stumbling, off-putting and, ultimately, disastrous.

His early performances featured awkward moments and fumbled responses, but perhaps the first serious damage was done by an answer that Perry articulated quite well in September.

The issue was a Texas plan subsidizing tuition to certain in-state students even if their parents had brought them to the country illegally. Romney said it was unfair to charge other students tens of thousands of dollars while giving free tuition to "illegal immigrants."

Most of the other candidates lined up with Romney, but Perry stuck to his guns.

"I don't think you have a heart," he said, if you would deny this opportunity to the deserving youths.

Some observers heard echoes of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" theme. But many others, including the conservative media, found Perry's overall showing disappointing and discouraging.

Perry was eager for a chance to make amends, but matters did not improve. And, on Nov. 8, he committed a gaffe likely to live in campaign infamy. He said as president he would eliminate three agencies: "Education, Commerce and ...."

The audience tittered, and other candidates shouted out suggestions. When the debate moderator asked if he had a third one, Perry said, "Let's see ... I can't. The third one — oops."

There were no votes cast until January of 2012, but by then Perry's stock had plummeted. He was fifth in the Iowa caucuses with about 1 vote in 10. Later that month, he suspended his campaign two days before the South Carolina primary.

On a later occasion, Perry would show some humor about his fall. At the Gridiron Dinner, where Washington journalists roast politicians, Perry would say it was painful to lose as he did: "Weakest Republican field in memory and every one of them kicked my butt."

When Perry left the governorship in 2015, some felt his time had passed, even in Texas, where U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was already expected to run. But even as Perry turned 65 in March, he clearly felt he had another campaign in him.

He reintroduced himself to much of the media wearing thick eyeglass frames, suggesting a new air of intellectuality. And in the early fundraising, he seemed to be able to be competitive. But his poll standing remained mired in memories of his first campaign.

In the first Republican debate on Fox News in August, Perry did not qualify for the top 10 debate in prime time. He appeared instead in the "cocktail hour" preliminary round with other candidates stuck in single digits in the polls. He was eclipsed even in that event by Carly Fiorina, a rival who has not held public office.

CNN had invited him to the next debate on Sept. 16 as a second-tier candidate, two hours before the main debate.

Perry's campaign team has been meeting for the past two weeks to consider his options, and some campaign staff had been working at least part time without pay. Some of his offices in early primary states had also been closed.

On Friday, Perry made it official.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for
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