No phrase sums up Rick Perry’s political DNA better than this one: He has never lost an election. But after an awful fifth-place showing in Iowa, and top aides telling him he should consider pulling out of the presidential race, the specter of a first defeat has come into focus.
Here's the problem: Perry does not really know how to lose.
“Setbacks are unknown to him,” said Bill Miller, a veteran Texas lobbyist and consultant. “He has no experience with it. He’s never quit because he’s never lost.”
For a few hours following his drubbing in Iowa, it seemed that moment had finally arrived. Perry’s emotional speech at the Sheraton West Des Moines late Tuesday left staffers teary-eyed but somewhat relieved, and with the unmistakable impression that he was going home for good, that a formal withdrawal announcement was imminent.
“It’s done,” said one senior campaign official, when asked if there was any chance Perry might stay in the race.
Then came the caveat.
“But you know Rick Perry ... you never know what he’s going to do,” the aide said. “He may wake up tomorrow and decide he’s back in.”
That’s exactly what happened early the next day, when Perry used his personal Twitter account to say he was heading to South Carolina, site of the nation’s first Southern primary.
Stunned campaign aides and reporters, bleary-eyed from a gathering that had all the trappings of a late-night farewell party, stumbled out of their hotel rooms — or in a few cases from rental cars that had been pointed toward the airport — to assess the news.
Was it real?
A longtime Perry spokesman, Mark Miner, clutching a Red Bull in one hand and a cigarette in the other, confirmed the Tweet had come from Perry, and wryly noted, “He never left the race.”
Nor did Perry wait until he got back to Texas to reassess his chances, as he said he would the night before. Instead, he said he found inspiration on the jogging trail.
“It kind of came to me,” Perry said. Top advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, say Perry's wife, Anita, and son, Griffin, were staunchly opposed to a withdrawal.
Bob Haus, Perry’s Iowa campaign director, had tears in his eyes after Perry left the stage Tuesday night, but he was not surprised when he saw the governor's resolve he next morning.
“He doesn’t mish-mash around,” Haus said. “He doesn’t second guess himself.”
Perry has exhibited the same grit through an uninterrupted winning streak that began in 1984, when he won a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.
Time and time again, he has won seemingly unwinnable elections. His biggest test came in 1990, when pundits and even many Republicans thought the cotton farmer and former Air Force pilot had no chance to beat liberal icon Jim Hightower for Texas agriculture commissioner.
But as that November evening wore on, his chief strategist at the time, Karl Rove, told Perry that he would win in a squeaker.
“He looked at me like I was nuts,” Rove said in an email.
Perry had another razor-thin victory, for lieutenant governor in 1998. Then when he announced in 2009 that he was running for an unprecedented third term as governor, polls showed he was 20 points behind popular U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
The governor, honing an anti-Washington message that has since become his political mantra, won by that same margin, engineering a rare 40-point swing.
Perry is trying to keep the never-lose mythology alive in South Carolina, which aides once described as his “Southern firewall.”
Defeat may yet come. Despite his Iowa pounding though, supporters argue that this, of all times, is the wrong moment to quit. Perry still has between $3 million and $5 million according to campaign insiders.
And in a race that has had as many twists and turns as this one, a Rick Perry comeback, they say, is just as plausible as any other scenario.
This much is sure: As long as there is a dollar in the bank and a shred of hope, those who know Perry best will not count him out.
“He’s never lost, and I don’t think he or the campaign intend to lose this time,” said Reggie Bashur, a longtime Republican political consultant. “He plays to win. He won’t let up.”