By John Whitesides
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry, seen just months ago as a strong contender to become the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said he would reassess his White House bid after a distant fifth place showing in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses.
"I have decided to return to Texas, assess the results of tonight's caucus to determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race," Perry, who had led polls of Republican presidential candidates after he jumped into the race in August but committed a series of gaffes on the campaign trail, told supporters.
"With a little prayer and reflection, I'm going to decide the best path forward," said Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
A source close to the campaign said Perry was running out of money and did not want to go into debt.
Perry, 61, had roared past former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney to take the lead in polls of the Republican candidates after entering the race.
His conservative views and support from the grassroots Tea Party movement had seemed to position him as a top contender in the race for the Republican nomination to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.
But Perry foundered after several poor debate performances in which he was hammered by his rivals over his immigration policies and for ordering that young girls in Texas be vaccinated for a sexually transmitted virus. He was ridiculed after a major debate stumble in November when he could not remember one of the three government agencies that he had repeatedly said he would eliminate if elected president.
Perry won only 10 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses, the first contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican Party's presidential nomination to face Obama in the November 6 election. He finished behind Rick Santorum, Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich.
In a sign that he may end up pulling out of the race, Perry spoke of his campaign in the past tense in a speech that started out with him reading a letter from a volunteer and ended with him saying he would rethink his campaign.
"When I began this campaign a little more than four months ago, I didn't do it because it was a lifelong ambition to be the president of the United States. I did it because our country is in trouble," said Perry, who had never lost an election before entering the race for the Republican nomination.
If Perry does withdraw, he would become the third major casualty in the marathon presidential campaign. In August, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty withdrew after failing to make headway in the race. And former pizza executive Herman Cain dropped out in December amid allegations of sexual harassment and infidelity.
"I think he deserved to finish in a much higher place," said Perry supporter Alicia VanDerVeer of Chillicothe, Iowa, who sounded upset at Perry's result.
"I am guessing it's about time for him to move on," she said. "I don't think he is going to make it."
Perry had been known for controversial remarks even before running for president. In 2009 Perry pondered his state's secession from the United States. At a Tea Party event in Austin, supporters shouted "secede," and Perry said Texas might want to "if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people."
Perry sought to appeal to Christian conservatives, an important bloc in the Republican Party. In August, he led a religious rally in Houston that put the spotlight on his Christian faith, offering a prayer for the nation.
Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman who won a key straw poll - an early test of strength - in Iowa in August, stumbled to a sixth place finish but vowed to soldier on in the campaign.
(Reporting by Karen Brooks in Austin and Eric Johnson in Iowa; Writing by Deborah Charles; Editing by Will Dunham)