Donald Trump's first victim? Rick Perry

Former Texas governor exits race in early 2016 shake up

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign stop at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H., Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign stop at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, N.H., Friday, Aug. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

ST. LOUIS — A growing divide has emerged in the Republican Party’s unruly presidential contest, as the race bid farewell to a once-powerful White House contender. On one side stands billionaire businessman Donald Trump and his allies, on the other are those who oppose him.

A day after Rick Perry, Texas’ longest serving governor, ended his second Republican presidential run with a whimper, Trump marked the shake-up by embracing his role as his party’s 2016 bully on Saturday.

“Mr. Perry, he’s gone. Good luck. He was very nasty to me,” Trump told Iowa voters after touting his tough-talking style in an interview.

“It’s an attitude that our country needs. We get pushed around by everybody,” he told Fox News. “I think it’s part of the reason I’m so high in the polls. We have to push back.”

Perry had all but declared war on the billionaire businessman in July, calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism” who could destroy the Republican Party. On Saturday, Trump’s campaign was soaring while Perry’s White House ambitions were dead. And with the real estate mogul suffocating the rest of the packed field, it’s only a matter of time before he helps push another Republican candidate out of the race.

Perry was a leading voice in the anti-Trump movement, a group that has suffered in the polls as Trump’s public allies largely avoid backlash from the anti-insider wave that made Trump the unlikeliest of Republican presidential front-runners.

Republican officials and donors alike are left in a state of mass confusion about Trump’s remarkable staying power despite his repeated gaffes and inexperience on key issues.

“There is no play in the playbook for where we are right now,” said John Jordan, a California winery owner and major Republican fundraiser. “Donors don’t know what to think. Nobody saw the Trump phenomenon coming. Probably a lot of Jeb donors wish they had their money back.”

In still-early polls, the real-estate mogul and reality TV star has more support that the once-top-tier trio of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio combined. In second, by the way, is another political rookie: Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who appeals to evangelicals, a large voting bloc among Republicans in the Iowa caucuses which lead off the state-by-state nominating contests next year.

With Perry out of the Republican race, Trump on Saturday focused his barbs on Carson who recently cast doubt on the real estate mogul’s religious faith, questioning his “fear of the Lord.”

“You don’t hit a person on faith,” Trump told hundreds of people at a rally in Boone, Iowa.

“I don’t know him. He knows nothing about me. I’m Protestant, I’m Presbyterian, I believe strongly, believe in the Bible strongly. But he hit me on my faith. No, I believe strongly. You don’t hit a person on faith. And he was nice enough to apologize.”

Trump, who has made a practice in public appearances and interviews of listing those he says have wronged him, told the crowd that he doesn’t think Carson could negotiate effectively with world leaders.

“I don’t think Ben has the energy,” Trump said. “Ben is a nice man, but when you’re negotiating against China and you’re negotiating against these Japanese guys that are going to come against you in waves, and they think we’re all a bunch of jerks ’cause our leaders are so stupid and so incompetent and so inept, we need people that are really smart, that have tremendous deal-making skills and that have great, great energy.”

Perry withdrew from the race on Friday in a surprise announcement at a gathering of social conservatives in St. Louis.

“We have a tremendous field of candidates — probably the greatest group of men and women,” Perry said. “I step aside knowing our party is in good hands, as long as we listen to the grassroots, listen to that cause of conservatism.”

Perry on Friday made several sly references to Trump, a last warning of sorts to a party experiencing its most serious identity crisis in a generation. Trump may favour tax increases on the rich, once supported abortion rights, gave money to Hillary Rodham Clinton and said kind things about government-run health care in other countries, but he’s become the unquestioned Republican presidential front-runner.

Perry’s Republican rivals praised him publicly and privately — and began courting his political network. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Saturday said Perry did “a remarkable job as governor” and praised him for running “an honourable campaign.”