View Photo Gallery: A look at each Republican contender’s best leadership attribute.

It’s two days before the South Carolina primary, and the only evangelical Christian candidate from the south is dropping out of the race. Texas Governor Rick Perry exited the presidential campaign Thursday, saying he knows when it’s time to make a “strategic retreat” and endorsing former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich as a “visionary.”

The obvious explanation for what, under other circumstances, would seem like odd timing, is the pressure on the far right for one of the remaining conservatives in the race to stop Mitt Romney. Gingrich’s poll numbers have been growing, and the former Georgia congressman is likely to scoop up many of Perry’s would-be votes in the neighboring state primary. By dropping out now, Perry can always claim he was someone who tried to unite support around a conservative candidate and try to oppose a Romney nomination.

I can’t help but think, however, that there’s more to the story. Who knows what Perry’s ultimate political ambitions might be, even if they’ve undoubtedly been dampened by his performance in this race. Had he gone through with South Carolina, not only would he have taken votes away from other conservatives like Gingrich, he also would have made future backers wonder how a Texas governor with enough evangelical bona fides that he held a day-long prayer summit back in August can’t do well in the Bible Belt’s first primary. In this case, it’s better to have no votes because you dropped out than to end up with an embarrassing few because you stayed in.

The timing also allowed Perry to make a graceful exit. I have to assume that most presidential candidates see the writing on the wall long before the first votes are cast in Iowa, and keep up a façade of running a campaign in order to find the right moment to step aside that does the least damage to both their reputation and their ego. Perry, you’ll recall, said he would reassess his campaign just after he had a poor showing in Iowa, and then turned around the next day and tweeted that he was headed to South Carolina. Quit then, and he’s doing it because he had a stinging defeat. Quit now, and he’s doing it to help the conservative cause. One’s a little easier to tell yourself a few years down the road when you start to wonder what might have been.

What’s odd is that Perry had, as recently as Sunday, said specifically that he would be in the race until Saturday’s primary, and would then decide his campaign’s fate after the results came in. Most second-tier candidates don’t talk in such specifics, always leaving the door open to that ego-saving outlet they seek. Perry surely realized that doing poorly in South Carolina would be even worse than doing poorly in Iowa, and decided to go ahead and cut the cord now. Like most ambitious leaders, Perry was probably looking for a moment that would help him save his pride. And when he saw it, he exited stage right.

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