Texas Gov. Rick Perry is exploring the possibility of a presidential bid in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, a top strategist to the four-term Republican said Saturday.

But Perry's speech to an annual gathering of Republican Party faithful Saturday was overshadowed by the performance of a President Obama impersonator who was pulled off the stage after delivering a string of racially tinged jokes.

Despite Perry’s recent statements that he holds little interest in serving in Washington, Perry strategist Dave Carney said the governor is closer than ever to jumping in. He said Perry does want to run, but has to determine whether there is time at this late date to put together a competitive organization.

“It’s really a logistical question: Can we build a financial infrastructure to raise the money without using so much of the governor’s time that he can’t campaign in the early states?” Carney said. “If you can do one without the other, it doesn’t really matter; you’ve got to be able to do them both. That’s the real question, and we don’t know the answer to that.”

The impersonator, comedian Reggie Brown, came on stage at the annual Republican Leadership Conference to the tune of “Born in the U.S.A.,” a reference to the discredited conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in this country. Brown said that during Black History Month, “Michelle celebrates the full month. I celebrate half.” And he imagined what Obama and the first lady would look like when they leave office — then flashed a picture onscreen behind him of the characters from the TV show “Sanford and Son.”

The episode threatened to distract attention from what Republicans had wanted to be the main theme of the conference, namely the effort to nominate a presidential candidate who can beat Obama. On Friday, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had exhorted the crowd to focus on policy differences, warning that “hating President Obama is foolish. I’ve got no doubt that President Obama wants the best for this country.”

Charlie Davis, president of the Republican Leadership Conference, said that he pulled Brown off the stage because he had gone too far in an otherwise successful conference.

“He was funny the first 10 or 15 minutes,” Davis said, “but it was inappropriate, it was getting ridiculous.”

Also Saturday, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) scored an overwhelming victory in the conference’s presidential straw poll. Paul typically does well in straw polls, if not in the presidential nomination primaries, because of his well-organized base of support. More surprising was the second-place finisher: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, whose moderate views were not expected to win him many votes at this conservative gathering.

Huntsman, who has not yet launched his campaign, was supposed to address the conference Friday but canceled after falling ill. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) took third place in the poll and Georgia businessman Herman Cain placed fourth. All others, including former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, amassed fewer than 100 votes.

Perry was not on the ballot, but he continued his flirtation with a presidential run with a speech in which he sharply criticized Obama’s policies and touted his own record in Texas as an example the nation should follow.

Perry struck a tone befitting a potential presidential candidate, prompting applause and cheers by ringing many of the conservative movement’s favorite notes. He praised Ronald Reagan, championed tax cuts and deregulation, saluted American exceptionalism and excoriated liberals.

“Our opponents on the left are never going to like us, so let’s quit trying to curry favor with them,” Perry said. “Let's stop this American downward spiral. We’re doing this” — and he made a spiraling gesture with his hand — “and it’s happening because of too much spending, too much interfering and too much apologizing.”

Perry avoided answering reporters’ questions about whether he will jump into the wide-open Republican field, but the crowd broke into a chant of “Run, Rick, Run!” as he left the stage. Carney said he is exploring “logistics” in the big three of early nominating states and looking at “the entire map.”

Carney said he is talking to people in Iowa and other states to learn the dates of filing deadlines for nominating contests as well as rules for getting on the ballots of GOP straw polls. He said Perry would make a decision this summer after “evaluating that information.” He added: “It’s just a matter of looking at the matrix that we’ll use and deciding to go or not go.”