Reviewing the Bidding on the GOP
Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has now participated in two debates with his fellow nomination seekers after announcing his campaign and instantly zooming to the top of the polls. Was he THAT famous before making his announcement? Had his book Fed Up! been a monster best-seller? The answer to both questions is no, so why did he rise? More important, how is he handling his front-runner status?
It seemed that Mitt Romney would cruise to the nomination. Mitch Daniels was out. Tim Pawlenty failed to catch fire and quit the race. Romney had the advantage of having run semi-continuously for president for about four years.
The problem for Romney as a Republican primary contender has always centered on two main facts. First, he is the one-term governor of Massachusetts, which is a state that normally produces governors at odds with the national party because of the compromises they have to make with their electorate. Indeed, Romney has started insisting that Perry benefits from a state with oil and a conservative political climate. Second, he pushed for a government health care program, which he must now defend and simultaneously insist is not right for the country as a whole.
Romney’s vulnerability created an opening for Michelle Bachmann, who sprinted through it for a win in the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa. Bachmann’s win signaled to Perry that it was time to enter the race. He did so to instant acclaim and sent Bachmann back to the second tier. She knows he is the source of her rapid descent and pursues him vigorously in the debates, looking to exploit his weaknesses.
In contrast to Romney, Perry is the governor of Texas. Republican governors of Texas have become what governors of California once were, which is nearly automatic candidates for president. His position has put him in the lead. The question is whether he can stay there.
The Texan’s performance in the first debate was poor. He appeared surprised by attacks launched by moderators and other candidates upon his record. A question about climate change caught him so flat-footed he struggled to get through his answer. But the scouting report on Perry is that he learns rapidly. He showed that with a much more confident showing earlier this week in his second attempt. But the trouble this time was that he said a few things about his policies that may reduce his appeal with the GOP base. For example, he defended a program in Texas, which gives in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. In his view, the program makes children of illegals productive whereas denying those benefits might lead to a young person going on welfare. His rationale wasn’t bad, but there is toxicity in the border issue.
The biggest question about Perry for GOP voters is whether he is their best chance to sweep to victory in 2012. Right now, they think he is. Romney stands next to him a little impatiently, perhaps knowing that his measured, technocratic approach could give him a better chance against President Obama. Rick Perry has the best chance of whipping up enthusiasm from the base, but he is also the most vulnerable to being demonized by the opposing party. In an election where the president faces an uphill battle due to the economy, less exciting might be a formula for victory.