CHARLESTON, S.C. – 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, the front-runner in early polls.

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.