CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Texas Gov. Rick Perry officially joined the Republican presidential race Saturday with a full-throated promise to reduce the role of the federal government, saying his goal as president would be to make Washington "as inconsequential in your lives as I can."
The Texan cast himself as a Washington outsider who would restore fiscal responsibility at home and U.S. "exceptionalism" in the world.
"We don't see the role of government as guaranteeing outcomes, but allowing free men and women to flourish based on their own vision, their hard work and their personal responsibility," said Perry, who has never held a private sector job and is in his third term as governor.
His nationally televised announcement before a large group of conservative activists in the first-in-the-South primary state of South Carolina came - not coincidently - the same day as Iowans weighed in on the GOP field with a test vote, and his entrance in the field capped a remarkable turn of events.
As recently as a few months ago, Perry foreswore any interest in running for president.
He reversed course after it became clear that the Republican establishment wasn't rallying around any single candidate and that many in the GOP electorate had reservations about their choices, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, until now the front-runner in early polls four years after losing his first presidential campaign.
Perry's late entry in the race promised to upend a field that includes Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Other contenders include former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and pizza magnate Herman Cain.
Perry is viewed as one of the few GOP candidates who can unite disparate elements of the Republican coalition. He has the backing of many tea party supporters, and is popular among social conservatives for his opposition to abortion and gay rights. He is also an evangelical Christian and hosted a prayer rally last weekend in Texas that drew thousands of attendees.
He's spent the past few weeks assembling a national finance team supporters say could rival President Barack Obama's. The president is on track to match or exceed the record-breaking $750 million he raised in 2008.
His fundraising prowess aside, Perry has never run a national campaign before, and his deeply conservative views may not sit well with voters in some parts of the country. His candidacy will also be a test of whether Americans are ready to elect as president another Texas governor, so soon after former President George W. Bush left office with record low approval ratings.
As most of his rivals gathered in Iowa, Perry held a conference call with Republican activists in South Carolina.
"I full well believe I'm going to win," he said on the call.
Then, he used his speech addressing the so-called RedState gathering of conservative bloggers to deliver a withering critique of "broken" Washington, which he said mismanaged its finances and levied undue regulation on people's lives and businesses. He slammed the deal struck by Obama and congressional leaders last week to raise the debt ceiling; a downgrade of the nation's credit rating by a lead ratings agency came just days later.
"This is just the most recent downgrade," Perry said. "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 our confidence, and downgrading the hope for a better future for our children."
"One in six work-eligible Americans cannot find a full-time job. That is not a recovery. That is an economic disaster," Perry added.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt released a statement slamming Perry before his speech had even concluded - a move that signaled the campaign views Perry's candidacy as a threat.
Perry was headed later Saturday to New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary, and then to Iowa Sunday. He has a full schedule of campaign events in all three states next week.