AUSTIN, Texas -- Rick Perry did something in Iowa he's never done in three decades of public life: He lost.
But those who have known Perry for years expect him to take his fifth-place finish in Iowa's caucuses in stride and keep campaigning, even as his chances of winning the presidential nomination shrink.
"He'll go with the strategy of leaving the best image as possible even as he fades away, leave America with that as his legacy instead of all those debate errors that shot his credibility," said Royal Masset, a former state GOP political director.
Iowa ended an unbeaten electoral streak for Perry that stretched back to 1984, when he won a Texas House seat as a Democrat. He switched parties and won his first statewide post as agricultural commissioner before being elected lieutenant governor, ascending to the governorship when George W. Bush left for the White House in December 2000 and winning election to three full, four-year terms.
Some who know him say the Iowa loss – it well could foreshadow a failure to win the nomination – has probably already had a deeper personal impact than Perry is letting on.
"I can't imagine that it doesn't affect your psyche a little bit, particularly with Perry, who he didn't just win the last few elections, he blew his opponents away," said Bill Ratliff, who served as lieutenant governor for two years under Perry. "It's got to be a sobering experience, especially when he came out on top of the polls and riding so high, and 60 days later he's struggling to stay in the race."
Perry himself appeared rattled in the immediate aftermath of Iowa. In an emotional speech in Des Moines on Tuesday night, he said he was heading back to Texas to mull quitting the race. The next morning, though, still in Iowa, he donned a track suit from his alma mater of Texas A&M and claims to have had an epiphany of sorts while jogging.
He then tweeted, "Here we come South Carolina!!!," such an about-face from the tone of the night before that it caught even some on his own campaign staff by surprise.
"I was out on the trail when it kind of came to me," a suddenly upbeat Perry said of changing his mind during the run. He added, "This was not a difficult decision."
His staying in likely benefits Mitt Romney since it means conservatives looking to vote for someone else to back might end up dividing their support among Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Perry became an almost overnight front-runner when he strode into the presidential race in August, and made up for his late entry with strong fundraising. But his polling numbers both nationally and in early voting states went into free-fall because of his support for offering in-state tuition at Texas universities to the children of illegal immigrants and a series of increasingly embarrassing debate flubs that made him a national punch line.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal campaigned with Perry during the final, frenzied days in Iowa and says he'll continue to support him despite the even poorer-than-expected result. "He's got a lot of folks around him counseling him what to do," Jindal said. "I'm just proud to call him a friend."