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Texas Gov. Rick Perry – whose presidential campaign charged to the front of the GOP pack in September – has dropped out of the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  Perry has told several of his South Carolina supporters that he will endorse former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is running neck-and-neck in early-voting South Carolina with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Perry called his South Carolina supporters on Thursday morning to inform them of his decision – which came just two days before Palmetto State voters cast their ballots in the state’s pivotal “First in the South” presidential primary.

He made it official at a press conference in North Charleston, S.C.

“The mission is greater than the man,” Perry said in his speech. “Therefore, today I am suspending my campaign and endorsing Newt Gingrich for president.”

Perry said that while he entered the race with “with a sense of calling,” that he now recognized that “there is no viable path to victory for my candidacy in 2012.

Shortly after announcing his candidacy in Charleston, S.C. last August, Perry soared to the top of the Republican pack – enjoying a 20-point lead in South Carolina in early September. After several poor debate performances, though, Perry’s stock sunk – and he was on the verge of exiting the race after a disappointing fifth-place finish in the Iowa Caucuses on January 3.

Why did Perry stay in?

According to our sources, his consultants talked him into it in an effort to exhaust his considerable campaign war chest.

Perry had a reasonably strong performance at a debate earlier this week in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but it wasn’t enough to move the numbers in his favor in the Palmetto State. Also, within the last three days he’s seen several of his top South Carolina backers – including S.C. Senator Larry Grooms and Medal of Honor recipient James E. Livingston – withdraw their support and urge Perry to drop out.

According to the most recent Insider Advantage survey, only three percent of likely SCGOP primary voters named Perry as their presidential preference …

Perry becomes the fifth Republican to abandon his presidential aspirations, following former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Godfathers Pizza CEO Herman Cain and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Perry’s exit – and his endorsement of Gingrich – definitively puts to rest speculation that he cut some sort of a deal with Romney to remain in the race and splinter the Palmetto State’s “Anybody But Romney” vote, a popular theory among South Carolina strategists over the last few days.

Who will Perry’s supporters follow?

Well, Grooms has already endorsed former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, while S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor – another early Perry backer – said he would follow the Texas governor’s lead and support Gingrich.

“I’ll cast my vote for Newt Gingrich, the best non-Romney candidate in the field and a man with the intellect, experience and savvy to give Barrack Obama the challenge he deserves,” Taylor wrote on his Facebook page.

Ummm … okay.

Frankly, it’s not Gingrich’s “intellect,  experience and savvy” we’re worried about … it’s this.

Pic: via Daylife