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With 'no regrets,' Perry drops out of the presidential contest at Eagle Forum convention

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry prepares to drop out of the GOP presidential race at the Eagle Forum in suburban St. Louis.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry prepares to drop out of the GOP presidential race at the Eagle Forum in suburban St. Louis.

This weekend’s Eagle Council was billed as a way for conservative activists to meet face-to-face with Republican presidential aspirants.

But on Friday afternoon, the Eagle Forum’s signature event became the venue for a once-promising candidate -- former Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- to bow out of the contest.

During his remarks to a packed hotel ballroom near Lambert Airport, Perry suspended his fledging presidential campaign. Declaring that “the message is bigger than the man,” the Republican cited his Christian faith before officially pulling the plug on his second White House bid.

“When I gave my life to Christ, I said, ‘Your ways are greater than my ways. Your will superior to mine.’ Today I submit that His will remains a mystery, but some things have become clear,” said Perry before eliciting a slight laugh. “That is why today I am suspending my campaign for the presidency of the United States.”

Perry struggled to gain a foothold in the crowded Republican field. He barely registered in popular opinion polls and was reportedly having trouble paying his campaign staff. 

While he was seen as a top tier presidential contender when he ran in 2012, he slipped badly in that campaign. He made an embarrassing gaffe during a debate that year when he failed to name the three Cabinet departments he’d eliminate, a remark followed by the exclamation ‘oops.’

Still, Perry said he shared the news of his departure “with no regrets.”

“It has been a privilege for me. It has been an honor to travel this country, to speak with the American people about their hopes and their dreams. To see a sense of optimism prevalent despite this season of cynical politics,” Perry said. “And as I approach the next chapter in life, I do it with the love of my life at my side, Anita Perry. We have a house in the country. We have two beautiful children and two absolute beautiful, adorable, smart granddaughters, four dogs, and the absolute best sunset you have ever seen from the back porch of our house.”

Before he left the Eagle Forum  without taking question, Perry took a number of veiled swipes at GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump. The wealthy businessman has raised eyebrows with some controversial statements about Hispanic immigrants. And Perry said his party can’t afford to alienate that key demographic group. 

Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly warms up the crowd at the 44th Annual Eagle Council.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly warms up the crowd at the 44th Annual Eagle Council.

“We cannot indulge nativist appeals that divide the nation further. The answer to our current divider-in-chief is not to elect a Republican divider-in-chief,” Perry said. “Demeaning people of Hispanic heritage is not just ignorant, it betrays the example of Christ. We can enforce our laws and our borders, and we can love all who live within our borders, without betraying our values.

Jennifer Bird is a committeewoman in St. Louis County. She wasn’t surprised by Perry’s departure from the race – especially since he was lagging in the polls so badly.

But, she said, Republicans had plenty of other options to choose from – including some of the contenders speaking at Eagle Forum this weekend. 

“I think supporters will make their decisions very quickly and I think they will make their move,” Bird said. “We actually have choice on this side. Democrats don’t have choice. And so we are making choices. And I think that’s easy to do. And I think people will align quickly.”

Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly alluded to the crowded presidential race during her remarks at the start of the event. She jokingly asked if attendees were "ready to go to exciting Cleveland, Ohio, next summer," the home of next year's Republican National Convention.

"And it looks like it’s going to be one that the delegates may really decide who the nominee is," Schlafly said. "That hasn’t been true in a number of cases. There’s a little group of people who think they’re the stuff and they try to tell us who should be. But I think the grassroots should do it, because the establishment … has picked a bunch of losers."

Carson visits Ferguson

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the Eagle Forum. Carson has surged in a number of opinion polls.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson speaks at the Eagle Forum. Carson has surged in a number of opinion polls.

One GOP candidate with a bit more momentum that attended the Forum was Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who’s catapulted to second place in many opinion polls. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke after Perry.)

Before making his own speech at the event, Carson spent time on Friday in Ferguson. He became one of the first major presidential candidates to visit where Michael Brown was shot and killed. (Democratic contender Hillary Clinton made a speech earlier this year in nearby Florissant. And U.S. Sen. Rand Paul visited the city last year.)

During a news conference in nearby Berkeley, Carson said he heard from more than one person who contended that leaving Brown’s body out on the street for roughly four hours last August inflamed tensions.

“I think a lot of people understood that he had done bad things,” Carson said. “But his body didn’t have to be disrespected.”

He said that it’s important to “make sure that respect is offered in both directions.” He added that he wasn’t inclined to support federal initiatives to expand the usage of body cameras, adding that he’d prefer to issue block grants to states instead.

“And also, for anything that’s block granted, I would tell the states that if they’re able to accomplish what they need to do with 80 percent of that, they can use the rest of it for whatever they want,” Carson said. “We need to incentivize efficiency within our states. But I really believe that a lot of these issues are going to be handled much better at a local level than they are at a federal level.” 

Members of the audience watch the Eagle Council proceeding unfold.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the audience watch the Eagle Council proceeding unfold.

When asked by a reporter why he didn’t meet with anybody from the Black Lives Matter group during his trip to Ferguson, Carson said he would be amenable meeting with members of that organization. But he added that activists spurred to protest by Brown’s death need to broaden their focus.

"I'm very happy to meet with Black Lives Matter. My beef with Black Lives Matter movement has been that I think they need to add a word. And that word is ‘all,’” Carson said. “All Black Lives Matter, including the ones that are eradicated by abortions and including the ones that are eradicated in the streets every day by violence. And we need to be looking at all the factors that have kept the black community in a very dependent position for decades. And there’s a lot of progress that can be made.”

Ferguson Mayor James Knowles and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder joined Carson for his press conference. And Knowles said that other presidential candidates should visit his town.

“I think it’s good for people to gain perspective,” Knowles said. “And the people here responded well to it. It was very encouraging for people to see somebody come here, want to see the community firsthand, and also to engage with them.”

“And of course, he got his I Heart Ferguson shirt,” he added, referring to a civic group that popped up after Brown’s death. “We’ve got I Heart Ferguson shirts for everybody. We can find a size for every candidate on [all sides] of the aisle.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.