CHARLESTON, S.C. — Declaring that it is “time to get America working again,” Gov. Rick Perry officially declared his presidential candidacy Saturday, telling a crowd in this key primary state that he will run to challenge President Obama in 2012.

In front of a crowd of 600 at the Francis Marion Hotel, Perry used his first speech as a candidate to brag about job creation in Texas under his leadership and argued he could dramatically improve the American economy if elected president.

“I do not accept the path that America is on…Because a renewed nation needs a renewed president,” Perry told the cheering crowd, declaring that it was “time to give a pink slip to the current White House.”

“I declare to you today as a candidate for president of the United States of America,” the he added.

Perry’s speech, coming on the same day Republicans in Ames, Iowa, will cast the first votes of the GOP nomination contest, is the start of a campaign launch that includes a stop in New Hampshire later Saturday and then several days of events in the Hawkeye State starting Sunday.

“In reality, though, this is just the most recent downgrade,” Perry said, referring to the first-ever recent drop in the country’s credit rating. “The fact is for nearly three years, President Obama has been downgrading American jobs, he's been downgrading our standing in the world, he's been downgrading our financial stability, he's been downgrading confidence and downgrading the hope of a better future for our children.”

Shortly afterwards, Obama’s re-election campaign released a response to Perry’s speech, calling the governor’s portrayal of Texas’s economic success a “tall tale.”

“Governor Perry’s economic policies are a carbon copy of the economic policies of Washington Republicans,” said campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt. “In a Republican field that has already pledged allegiance to the Tea Party and failed to present any plan that will benefit the middle class or create the jobs America needs to win the future, Governor Perry offers more of the same.”

The event was unusual, as Perry opted against the traditional approach of announcing in the city in which you live or were raised. Instead, the Texas governor spoke to an audience of party activists from across the country who came here for RedState’s annual event.

Originally, only 300 people were expected to attend the conference, but a crowd of nearly double that squeezed into a ballroom here to watch Perry speak.

Perry introduced his wife, Anita, and spoke briefly about his childhood in Paint Creek, Texas, a town so small that he joked that it doesn’t have a Zip code. He also highlighted his service as an Air Force pilot.

But the speech was largely an aggressive attack on Obama and a pledge to take the anti-tax, anti-regulation policies Perry has implemented in Texas and bring them to the rest of the nation.

Perry’s late entrance into the 2012 race thrusts into an already-crowded Republican field a candidate with the potential to win the GOP primary, even though some of his rivals have a substantial headstart. While Perry was not drafted, conservative activists lobbied for his candidacy in part because of dissatisfaction with the current field.

His candidacy could solidify the Republican field, which has been unsettled for months as a series of figures from Donald Trump to Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels have flirted but ultimately opted against running. 2008 GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin says she is still considering a candidacy, but has made little effort to build the kind of operation that would be required to run.

The governor’s speech had a sharp, anti-Washington tone. He cast the Obama administration as “central planners” bent on controlling every aspect of American life and promising to work “every day to make Washington, D.C., [as] inconsequential in your life as I possibly can.”

 “Washington is not our caretaker,” Perry declared, adding, “In America, the people are not subjects of the government, the government is subject to the people.”

Like other GOP candidates, Perry attacked Obama for increasing the deficit, proposing to raise taxes on upper-income Americans and pushing through health care legislation that Perry promised to repeal.

"We cannot afford four more years of this rudderless leadership," he said.

The governor of the nation’s second-largest state for 11 years, Perry enters the campaign with a host of advantages: a strong fundraising base, popularity with both tea party and religious conservatives and job growth in Texas under his leadership even as the national economy continues to struggle.

Perry, 61, has spent weeks preparing for a campaign and already has some critical elements in place. He has courted key party donors and will hold a series of fundraisers over the next month. In support of his candidacy, a group of his former aides has started a “super-PAC,” a political committee that can raise unlimited sums.

And Perry has already started making calls and courting key activists in the early primary states, as well as holding a huge prayer rally in Houston last week.

On Saturday, Perry also laid out a series of fundraising categories designed to encourage his donors to collect cash. According to a strategy document obtained by The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, there are four levels in the Perry donor universe:

“Patriots” are tasked with collecting $500,000 and promised a co-chairmanship of Perry’s national finance committee and a “VIP Republican National Convention Package” that includes a hospitality suite and a VIP reception at the national party convention. “Entrepreneurs,”who must raise $250,000, are promised membership on the national finance committee and “regular reports from campaign leadership.”

“Explorers” must raise $100,000 and are promised invitations to “special events at the Republican National Convention.” And “Pilots” must bring in $50,000 and are invited to host committee receptions when events are held in their respective states.

By announcing his candidacy on the same day Iowa Republicans are gathered in Ames for the much-anticipated straw poll there, Perry has annoyed some in the Hawkeye State who say he is stealing their day. But by making his move Saturday, Perry will deny whoever wins in Ames some of the media attention that could come with victory .

Perry’s candidacy is in some ways surprising. For years, he has spoken proudly of his disdain for Washington and in an interview last November with the Associated Press, said “I am not interested in going to Washington, D.C., as president, vice president or in anybody’s Cabinet.”

But the early months of campaigning have demonstrated less enthusiasm among the party faithful for the current crop of 2012 GOP contenders. On one hand, candidates such as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney have failed to galvanize the grassroots of the party, while other contenders, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), are popular with activists but not as much with party elites who worry she cannot win the general election.

Some in the party argue Perry, who was an early supporter of the tea party movement but is also liked by more establishment Republicans, could be a candidate who appeals to both groups. His views on most issues, from calling for the repeal of President Obama’s health care law to opposing gay marriage, mirror the other Republican hopefuls.

Perry’s candidacy is a surprise for another reason: many political experts had expected neither he nor former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would run in 2012 because of their links to George W. Bush, who left office in 2009 not only unpopular with Democrats but many Republicans.

Perry started his career in Texas politics as a Democratic state legislator and was even the Texas chairman of Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. Already a conservative Democrat, he switched to the GOP and in 1990 was urged by party figures in the state, including longtime Bush strategist Karl Rove, to run for state agriculture commissioner.

After two terms as agriculture commissioner, Perry was elected lieutenant governor in 1998, then took over two years later as the state’s chief executive after Bush was elected president.

But the two men don’t share very much in common. Bush grew up wealthy and graduated from a prep school in Massachusetts before earning degrees at Harvard and Yale, while Perry was raised in a small west Texas town called Paint Creek and graduated from Texas A&M.

And their politics are different as well, as Perry is more conservative than the ex-president on some issues. Bush campaigned in 2000 as a “compassion conservative,” shifting the GOP’s emphasis from smaller government to pushing education reform and other issues designed in part to appeal to swing and minority voters.

Perry has made cutting taxes and reducing spending the centerpiece of his politics and suggested his fellow Texan at times did not have the same priorities.

In 2007, campaigning in Iowa for former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Perry said “George Bush was never a fiscal conservative — never was.” In his 2010 book “Fed Up!” Perry complains Bush “turned a blind eye to undisciplined domestic spending.’

In that book, Perry calls Social Security “a failure,” and proposes the adoption of a constitutional amendment to limit federal spending.

With American voters fixated on the economy, Perry’s presidential campaign will highlight his record in Texas, where by some estimates half of the net new jobs in the country have been created. The governor says this is proof that the Lone Star State approach, with no income taxes and limited regulation, leads to economic growth.

Democrats describe the results of Perry’s policies very differently: they see a state with one of the highest percentage of low-wage jobs in the country and one with the highest percentage of people without health insurance.

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