AUSTIN Texas -- With two more debates under his belt, Texas Gov. Rick Perry travels to South Carolina Sunday for a campaign swing that will very likely amount to hitting his head against a political wall for 13 straight days.
"At least it will be warmer there," some on his staff darkly joke.
But Perry, who is keeping his campaign alive despite a fifth place finish in the Iowa caucuses, is a candidate who has never lost an election, a man whose voice breaks when he relates the stories of young veterans who survived brutal attacks against all odds, a dirt-poor kid whose identity is fundamentally rooted in the unlikeliness of his ascent from a chemistry-flunking country boy to the leader of the 13th largest economy in the world.
He believed there was a chance. He's taking it. Because he always has before, and why not?
Sources familiar with Perry's thinking say when his Iowa failure was unfolding, his South Carolina team reminded the governor that his campaign had the financial resources and the ground game to support a last-ditch campaign whirlwind in the Palmetto State. His family - and members of his veterans' coalition who act as an extended family for the onetime C-130 pilot - encouraged him not to give up the ghost until he'd exhausted all options. There was, Perry was told, no downside to continuing the run other than the perception - shared by all but his most ardent devotees - that he would simply be prolonging the inevitable.
But few - if any - members of his staff on the ground walked out of the West Des Moines Sheraton ballroom on Tuesday night believing that Perry would do anything but exit the race on Thursday in Austin. So when Perry rocked (or at least jiggled) the political world on Wednesday by tweeting his intention to stay in the race, confusion abounded in the ranks of staff still groggy from an emotional evening in the hotel bar swapping memories of a campaign days past.
Perry had spoken to top aide Joe Allbaugh and communications director Ray Sullivan by phone about the decision to stay in, but the message was never communicated to aides on the ground in Iowa. One staffer speculated that the governor's Twitter account had been hacked before finding out through press reports that the abandoned South Carolina barnstorm was back on.
Those close to Perry laugh off conspiracy theories that the governor's decision to stay in the presidential contest is somehow designed as a spoiler to elevate Mitt Romney. Perry's personal friction with the former Massachusetts governor's dates back to their overlap at the Republican Governors' Association, and there's no reason to suspect that the brutal last five months has soothed Perry's views of his rival as a wad of political Play-Doh.
Apparent impulsivity - and the deployment of a political vision hazy in the eyes of everyone except for himself - has worked for the governor before.
His decision to run for re-election in 2010, which came as a seemingly off-the-cuff remark at the conclusion of a press scrum, caught his Texas allies by surprise, but Perry marched on to a staggering victory in November. Last year, Perry appeared to have shut and bolted the door on a presidential run, only to bring back his closest advisers from Newt Gingrich's then-crumbling campaign to rocket into front-runner status when he finally entered the race in August.
Perry's calculus this time is based almost completely on the past volatility of the GOP field, which has seen each of its candidates - with the exception of Romney - experience increasingly shorter half-lives at the top of the polls. A perfect storm would require the collapse of both a kamikaze Gingrich who sacrifices the appeal of his "positive campaign" in the attempt to deliver a body blow to Romney and a dizzied Santorum who withers under scrutiny.
In that scenario, Perry - who can point to his national organization and onetime impressive fundraising numbers - would play the role of Lazarus to social conservatives on the brink of despairingly supporting Romney.
The strategy will require not only luck, but also a nimble and united team to respond quickly to attacks and rally supporters for one more foray into the breach.
Which might be the variable Perry hasn't considered.
As sharply illustrated by the content and fallout from a Politico piece published just days before the Iowa caucus, the relationship between Perry's original Texas team and the outside consultants who are largely steering the campaign now is characterized by mistrust and hurt feelings.
So can he do it?
Not impossible. But it would take luck, leadership, and a Texas miracle.