WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Shrugging off a disappointing showing in Iowa's caucuses, Rick Perry said Tuesday he would compete in South Carolina regardless of the final tallies here and bought television time to back it up.
Perry encouraged supporters to keep the faith in his national aspirations as his advisers cast the coming contest in South Carolina as the first real test of his presidential campaign. Before Iowans met at churches and schools to signal their preferences, Perry was downplaying the role of the traditional lead-off states.
"The idea that one or two states is going to decide who the next nominee for the Republican Party is just, you know, that's not reality," Perry told CNN before the caucuses began.
Perry's team planned events in South Carolina for Wednesday and hoped a jumbled pecking order would emerge from Iowa's caucuses.
"The votes are the votes, and we're still early in the night so we'll wait and see in the morning what it looks like," he told Fox News Channel from an election night party that was slow to fill with supporters.
He also signaled that he saw the contest to oppose President Barack Obama as a two-man race between himself and Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
"Mitt Romney has got a real problem when it comes to consistency," Perry said on CNN. "Those folks in South Carolina, I can promise you, they're not going to buy a pig in a poke, so to speak, and a Massachusetts governor that put individual mandates in place that Obama took as the model to create Obamacare is not going to sell in South Carolina."
Romney signed into law a health overhaul that was a model for Obama's national legislation. The law's requirement to purchase health insurance has been a sore point among conservatives but has not to this point proved prohibitive to Romney's White House dreams.
Perry began the day with a visit to volunteers, hoping to buoy their enthusiasm in the face of public and private polling that indicated they would be sorely disappointed when the results are announced Tuesday night.
The Texas governor and former Air Force pilot compared caucus day to a military campaign.
"This is Concord. This is Omaha Beach," he said. "This is going up the hill, realizing that the battle is worthy. This is about sacrifice. Every man and woman has sacrificed your time, your treasure, your reputation.
"But you're doing it out of love for this country," he continued. "That is what gets us up every day, gives us the courage, the fortitude, the focus to go do what we have done for the last almost six months."
Perry entered the race in August to great fanfare but, faced with a compressed timeline and saddled with weak performances in televised debates, proved unable to sustain the sizzle. He joined the race the same day of the early test vote at the Ames straw poll and missed the opportunity to test a political machine that his rivals enjoyed.
On Tuesday, he urged supporters to stick with him and signaled that he understood his challenges.
"I don't get confused that this is a marathon," he said. "It is going to go on for some time."
Unlike a day before, he did not predict a victory.
An entrance poll of early arriving caucus-goers in Iowa suggested that Romney, Texas congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were in the top tier of vote-getters in the Republican presidential contest. The survey by Edison Media Research for The Associated Press and television networks was based on interviews with more than 700 people arriving at 40 precinct caucuses across the state.
The Texas governor made a last-minute push Tuesday to avoid an embarrassing finish. At his first town hall-style meeting, he offered a sometimes rambling 25-minute speech and opened the floor to question.
No one in the audience rushed to ask him questions. To fill the gap, Perry awkwardly hummed the theme song from the game show "Jeopardy!"