By Samuel P. Jacobs
GREER, South Carolina (Reuters) - Rick Perry rode into the Republican nomination high in the saddle, with Marlboro Man good looks, strong financial backing from home state loyalists and a record of economic success as Texas governor.
But it turned out that the plain-spoken presidential candidate from flyspeck Paint Creek, Texas, was all hat and no cattle. From his wipe-out debate performances to his awkward defense of U.S. soldiers who urinated on dead Afghans, the Perry never lived up to his early potential.
His constant refrain that he was the campaign's true outsider fell on deaf ears among a Republican primary electorate dedicated to upending Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 elections.
Perry did not join the race until August and he became the immediate frontrunner when he did. A Gallup poll taken in late August had Perry ahead of Romney nationwide among Republicans by a margin of 12 percentage points. In most recent surveys, however, Perry could not break out of single digits.
With voters insisting on competence as much as ideological rigor, Perry's verbal stumbles and debate slip-ups left the impression that the Texan couldn't shoot straight.
The Perry campaign was haunted by 53 seconds of inexplicable brain freeze during a Michigan presidential debate in November. Finally, when the Texan could not recall the name of the Department of Energy -- one of the government agencies he wanted to disassemble -- the governor let out a resigned, "Oops."
"Those early debate performances did him in," said Furman University political scientist Danielle Vinson. "People in South Carolina are very practical. While they like his approach, they also want to win in November."
Perry's good ol' boy image came under attack after an October report in the Washington Post that he had spent years hunting on a 1,000-acre ranch leased by his family that was known as "Niggerhead."
Recently, Perry accused Obama of having "disdain for the military" because of the Pentagon's handling of U.S. Marines videotaped urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters.
"These are 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids. They make mistakes. There is video out there of all types of things," Perry said.
At his last debate, Perry caused a minor international incident by labeling the government of Turkey, a NATO ally, "Islamic terrorists."
During Perry's maiden voyage to Iowa this summer, the governor alarmed the Republican establishment with his tough talk about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.
"If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas," Perry said.
Perry called the central banker's behavior, "almost treasonous."
At home, the governor who had never lost an election became a punch line.
In December, the editors of Texas Monthly magazine gave Perry its "Bum Steer of the Year Award," granted annually to the person "responsible for the biggest screw-up, gaffe, fumble, stumble, train wreck, or humiliation of the past 12 months."
Perry did find pockets of support, including in South Carolina where some of his events were sparsely attended. He spoke to the frustration of some voters that the United States has lost its standing in the world.
"I think everybody is laughing at us," said Scott Sawyer, 43, an independent distributor from Fountain Inn, South Carolina. "Rick Perry would let the world know that we are a powerful nation."
LITTLE TO SHOW FOR IOWA SPENDING
But his dim prospects had become obvious in Iowa. Perry and his supporters spent $480 per vote to come in fifth -- 24 times the amount Rick Santorum and his allies spent in winning the caucuses in the Hawkeye State.
After his weak finish, Perry seemed on the cusp of quitting, saying he wanted to reassess his prospects. He did little to contest the New Hampshire primary.
South Carolina had seemed one of his best hopes. David Wilkins, a former speaker in the South Carolina House of Representatives and a top Perry supporter, said he thought that besides Texas, South Carolina would be one of the governor's strongest showings.
But this week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, joined by a pair of leading conservative commentators, challenged Perry to step out of the race. When he did drop out on Thursday, Perry endorsed Gingrich.
On Wednesday, a day before Perry suspended his run, the candidate continued a relaxed campaign, teasing a reporter about buying a new dress, saying, "Paisley's coming back." He ditched his sport coat for a blue fleece and replaced his signature cowboy boots with brown slip-on shoes that screamed suburban dad.
Three days before the primary, with other candidates furiously campaigning, Perry found himself with a 5 1/2-hour schedule gap after an appearance at Bob Jones University, the evangelical institution, was scrapped.
He made light of his low standing in the polls. When a moderator praised Perry for keeping his comments brief Tuesday, the governor wisecracked, "I take instructions very well."
A few days earlier, Perry laughed it up with a mannequin. "I thought this lady had her hand up over here. Just kidding. Best question I'll get, right?" Perry said at the Squat N' Gobble restaurant in Bluffton.
Perry's propensity for confusion led reporters to ask whether he had mistaken the plastic model for a real person.
At a cafe on Wednesday, Perry was stopped at a table of two older women. One asked if Perry was president and the governor explained that that's what he'd like to become.
To the other woman, Perry mentioned Moses, the Old Testament leader who Perry has compared himself too recently.
"Moses wasn't a very good speaker but he guided them to the Promised Land," Perry said. "He never got there himself."
(Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Bill Trott)