Six months later, they were all calling on him to quit. He was getting no traction, and he didn’t look like he ever would. “Boy,” said Duane Kelly. “He looks exhausted. That’s got to be exhausting.” At that moment, Perry was actually crackling back to life. Around 20 students from Georgia’s Mercer University had located the Perry campaign—they were touring the state, learning about politics. Perry spent 10 minutes talking to them on the sidewalk, taking particular interest in a student who’d served in the Marine Corps, and telling him a very long version of a story about one of his endorsers, a Medal of Honor winner, saving another Medal of Honor winner. (Said endorser, Mike Thornton, stood watch a couple of feet away. The medal hung around his neck.)
“What’s the best part of campaigning?” asked one student.
“Getting to see different parts of the country that you never would,” said Perry, with none of the “uhs” that he emitted during the policy question. “South Carolina’s got great cities. These older towns that have great character. I’ll tell you this, Georgetown’s one of the more intriguing cities—big ol’ oak trees over the streets.”
Perry slowly worked through town, ending up at the Southern Thymes Cafe, which was ominously far from crowded. The Georgia students got there early and occupied the best seats. They also asked the only two questions that Perry had time for, softballs about “what else you wanted to say at the debate” and what he’d do for veterans. “It’s all about the next generation,” said Perry, “like these kids from Mercer!” And then he was gone. His campaign team confirmed that the other events were canceled, but that they were only tentative anyway.
The governor enjoyed some downtime. Between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., he made a decision: He would leave the race. As the day went on, he broke the news to advisers. Still, he kept his “personhood” appointment. He took a chair onstage at a Hilton in Greenville and was gently grilled by three moderators who wanted to know how pro-life he really was. When they were done, they offered him 60 seconds for closing remarks.
“Sixty seconds!” said Perry. “That sounds like a debate!” He jokingly slapped his thigh with a sheet of paper. The audience got the joke.
The next morning, the embeds and everybody else filed into a North Charleston Hyatt to watch Perry admit defeat. “I am not done fighting for the cause of conservatism,” he said, after endorsing Newt Gingrich and thanking his family and chagrined endorsers. “In fact, I have only begun to fight.”
That statement meant so much less than it did six months ago, at the hotel down the highway. Perry had been reduced by the exposure of a presidential campaign. He’d been a proud, libertarian critic of the welfare state. He’d become a guy shambling through retail campaign stops until he, and his donors, couldn’t take it anymore.
After Perry wrapped and disappeared upstairs, his campaign team gritted its teeth through endless chats with reporters. They revealed the tick-tock of the decision process, and how Perry had come to endorse Gingrich. They assured us that nothing like the 2012 Perry campaign could happen again—that the media will never again grind down good men by tripping them up with endless debates and obsessive coverage.
“The lesson,” said Perry’s South Carolina adviser Katon Dawson, “is that the candidates are gonna need to have the discipline, and the campaign teams are gonna need to have the discipline, to say yes and no. You watch. The Democrats will. There’ll be a panel, there’ll be a campaign adviser on each one, and they’ll pick the [debate] dates they want, the people they want.” The media had set traps for Perry, he said. “They were building the fields, and waiting for them to come. That won’t happen again. We were a victim of the drive-by shootings of the mainstream and liberal media, and we let them dictate our primary, and we did it to our peril.”