Why is Rick Perry backing Newt Gingrich now?

Rick Perry bowed out today, likely giving Newt Gringrich a well-timed lift in the South Carolina primary.

REUTERS/Chris Keane
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (with his wife Anita) announces he is dropping his run for the Republican presidential nomination in Charleston, South Carolina January 19, 2012.

Rick Perry’s surprise decision to drop out of the race and endorse Newt Gingrich may seem like odd timing, just a few days before the South Carolina primary. But it actually comes at a critical juncture - and in many ways, could play out for maximum impact, in Gingrich’s favor.

Consider:

  • The announcement has already stepped all over the breaking news that Rick Santorum actually won Iowa, not Mitt Romney. If Santorum was ever going to get a significant boost from the Iowa news, that already seems less likely.
  • There will be one less candidate on the debate stage tonight - which means more time and attention will go to the remaining candidates. And Gingrich has proven himself adept at using the debate spotlight to his advantage.
  • While there may not be too many Perry supporters left, he’s been polling between 4 and 6 percent in South Carolina. If all those votes go to Gingrich, it could actually be enough to help him close the gap with Romney. (The most recent polls show Romney leading Gingrich by roughly 10 points - but Gingrich has been rising and Romney has been falling. If that trend continues, the extra bump of Perry supporters could put Gingrich over the top.)

In his exit speech Thursday morning, Perry specifically threw his support to  Gingrich:

"I believe Newt is a conservative visionary who can transform our country… Newt is not perfect, but who among us is? The fact is, there is forgiveness for those who seek God - and I believe in the power of redemption for it is a central tenant of my Christian faith."

Why would Perry go out of his way to help Gingrich?

It could be that he simply wants to try to halt Romney’s march toward the nomination, and sees Gingrich as the strongest candidate left. The two men have also known one another for some time; Gingrich actually wrote the foreword to Perry’s book “Fed Up.” And - oh yes - there’s also the matter of all those former Gingrich staffers who joined the Perry campaign over the summer. If they’re hoping to rejoin the Gingrich train in the near future, it seems they’re doing what they can right now to get back into the former Speaker’s good graces.

Watch the top Republican candidates face off in the CNN Southern Republican Presidential debate live from South Carolina! Thursday night at 8ET on CNN (Sponsored message).

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