Texas Gov. Rick Perry --whose front-runner status in the fall crumbled after, among other things, his awkward handling during a GOP presidential debate of an attack on his immigration stance – withdrew from the race Thursday.

Perry then endorsed Newt Gingrich, who himself has, at times, held front-runner status in the GOP race for the party nomination. Perry said Gingrich was a true conservative, and the kind of candidate needed to ensure that President Obama is not re-elected.

The Texas governor announced his decision Thursday at a news conference in South Carolina, two days before the state's primary.

Perry said he concluded there was no "viable path forward" for him in the race. He praised Gingrich as a "conservative visionary."

Former House Speaker Gingrich is drawing big, enthusiastic crowds and fending off new attacks from GOP front-runner Mitt Romney while reveling in a strong debate performance and a nod from tea party favorite Sarah Palin.

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Romney went hard after both Gingrich and Perry for their positions on certain aspects of immigration, and he cast himself as the hard-line candidate on border security and enforcing immigration laws.  

Romney assailed Gingrich for supporting “amnesty” for his proposal to allow law-abiding undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for 25 years to legalize their work status in this country.

And he went after Perry for favoring letting undocumented students in his state attend college at the same tuition rates as other Texas residents.

In Iowa, an outside group that supports Romney, Restore Our Future, spent more than $909,000 airing 1,694 negative ads on the issue of immigration, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising. Included among those ads was one that opened with criticism of Perry and Gingrich and ended with the line: “Gingrich and Perry, too liberal on immigration.”

A new poll of likely voters in South Carolina by CNN/Time shows Gingrich in second place with support from 23 percent of likely primary voters, having gained 5 percentage points in the past two weeks. Romney led in the poll with 33 percent, but he had slipped some since the last survey. Santorum was in third place, narrowly ahead of Texas Rep. Ron Paul and well ahead of Perry.

Will Perry’s endorsement help Gingrich?

On a Fox News show Thursday, a political expert speculated it would as long as Gingrich kept the momentum between now and Saturday. The expert said Gingrich’s strong performances in debates would help, given that there is one more – tonight – before the primary.

Regardless of the South Carolina outcome, Gingrich was making plans to continue to Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31.

"There is one candidate who can give you a conservative nominee and only one candidate who can stop Mitt Romney," Gingrich told an overflow crowd of about 400 on Wednesday. "A vote for anyone else is a vote that allows Mitt Romney to potentially be our nominee."

Perry was riding high among Republican voters until during a debate Romney attacked the Texas governor’s support for a state measure that allowed undocumented students a chance to attend at in-state tuition rates.

Perry defended his support of the measure, and later added that anyone opposing helping young people was heartless.

But his weak and tepid defense failed to blunt the blows from Romney’s offense, prompting Perry to veer further to the right on immigration issues.

In a blog, Mark P. Jones, a fellow with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s and the chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University, said that Perry faces a return to Texas with a bruised image among the state’s Latinos.

“Prior to his presidential bid, Perry successfully walked a tightrope on immigration,” Jones wrote, “placating his base while not alienating the one-third to two-fifths of Hispanics who consistently have voted for him and other Republicans in Texas."

But his shift to the right during the race to be the GOP nominee “was epitomized by his embracing of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was named chair of the Perry Campaign in Arizona and accompanied Perry on the campaign trail.”

“While a majority of Hispanic voters do not rank immigration as a high priority issue, they do make a distinction between those immigration policies which appear to be based on a desire to uphold the rule of law and those which they see as being overtly anti-Hispanic. For a majority of Hispanics, Arpaio’s behavior falls in the latter category.”

The Associated Press reporting contributed to this report. 

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached elizabeth.llorente@foxnewslatino.com

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Elizabeth Llorente is the Politics Editor/Senior Reporter for Fox News Latino, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnewslatino.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente

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