Commentary: The stained-glass ceiling halted Perry's presidential run

When hillbilly bandleader W. Lee "Pass the Biscuits, Pappy" O'Daniel quit the U.S. Senate in 1948, he promised to go home.

"I might start a fiddle band," he said.

Instead, O'Daniel ran for governor twice more, tried to run for president and wound up campaigning as a third-party write-in candidate, calling Washington a "bunch of crooks" and vowing to repeal "socialistic and communistic legislation."

He didn't quit for 10 more years.

And I don't hear Gov. Rick Perry talking about fiddling.

When the end came for Perry 2012 on Thursday in South Carolina, he quoted John Paul Jones and Texas President Sam Houston, saying he had "just begun to fight" and will continue after a momentary "strategic retreat."

He comes home a wearier governor but not necessarily a weaker one.

After all, what other evangelical politician ever drew 40,000 worshippers for a prayer rally?

"Even though he stumbled, evangelicals still like him personally," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied religion and politics.

"His celebrity role took a hit. But there's also a lot of sympathy."

As a national candidate, Perry banged his head into a stained-glass ceiling.

He was drafted to run by some pastors and televangelists who feared that evangelical-friendly Newt Gingrich was too distracted.

But just when Perry and Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum were 1 point apart in a Dec. 26 Iowa poll, two leaders of a Focus on the Family affiliate endorsed Santorum and boosted him to victory.

Then when Perry was climbing back into contention in South Carolina, a summit of Christian conservatives endorsed Santorum, apparently because Focus founder James Dobson wants Karen Santorum as first lady.

"Perry came into Iowa, stomped all over Michele Bachmann and looked like the guy for evangelicals," said Dennis J. Goldford of Des Moines, Iowa, a Drake University political science professor and author of a new Baylor University Press book, The Constitution of Religious Freedom.

"Perry said the right things, but he was talking in bumper stickers. He never convinced voters he could beat [President Barack] Obama. It was as if this Texas football powerhouse came in but had never played anybody but junior high teams."

Perry was an awful debater, but also a great debater, and sometimes both on the same night.

In his 40th year teaching at the University of Texas-Pan American, professor Jerry Polinard said Perry wound up trapped as a punch line: "Bluntly, some of his supporters asked me, 'Is he really that stupid?' ... You'd rather be laughed at for shooting a coyote, not for saying, 'Oops.'"

Perry's Gingrich endorsement means trouble ahead for Mitt Romney, Polinard said -- and for someone else.

"The people who are really depressed today are the late-night talk show hosts," he said.

Maybe they should take note of Perry's parting comment.

Every Texan knows what happened after Gen. Sam Houston lured Mexico's army north with his "strategic retreat."

He became president of the Republic of Texas.

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