BOONE, Iowa -- Texas Gov. Rick Perry can still fill a room with his Texas swagger and frontier good looks. But Perry may have exerted his greatest influence on the 2012 GOP race through a vacuum he has created -- a dynamic that is powerfully shaping the Iowa caucuses now hurtling toward Tuesday’s vote.
Perry’s appearance here Saturday was something like an Iowa caucus episode of The Twilight Zone: a look at an alternate reality. Standing before an oversized American flag, Perry delivered a brisk, well-received recitation of conservative principles that quickly hit on almost all of the main concerns of the party’s most activist voters, both social and economic.
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“My conservative values span the spectrum from fiscal issues to national security to social issues,” he insisted.
Perry pledged to defend and reward “hard work, faith, freedom and family.” He identified with the grassroots disillusionment with the GOP’s national leadership pledging to convert Congress into a part-time legislature. “What I’m telling you,” he declared, “is you don’t have to settle for another Washington insider.” He cited his record in advancing conservative causes like defunding Planned Parenthood. It was a note-perfect performance for the GOP’s most conservative voters, and he was interrupted several times for applause. When he finished, supporters mobbed around him.
Perry’s strong event was a look at the Iowa caucus contest that might have been – one in which his brash small government message succeeded in unifying the state’s large conservative bloc against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But a few hours after Perry got back on his big “Faith, Jobs and Freedom” campaign bus, he was hit with the results of the final Des Moines Register poll, which showed the Iowa right fragmenting, Romney leading, and the Texas governor limping along in fifth place, with just 11 percent support.
In that way, Iowa this year has provided a microcosm of the national dynamics in the GOP race. Arguably the most important development in the contest over the past year has been something that didn’t happen: no candidate consolidated the overlapping circles of evangelical Christians and tea party activists most resistant to Romney, the once and now restored front-runner. Many GOP strategists believe that failure could put Romney on a virtual glide path to the nomination if Iowa does not elevate an alternative with greater potential than Rick Santorum or Ron Paul to build a national campaign.
Both here and nationally, conservative voters failed to unify in part because two of the candidates who might have been most attractive to them remained on the sidelines: former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. But of the candidates who entered the race, Perry was the one most closely in tune with those voters at the party’s ideological vanguard.
“I think he had the best chance to be a compelling conservative across the board-social, economic and foreign policy,” said veteran GOP strategist Jeff Bell, now the policy director of the conservative American Principles Project. “He had the right instincts that a conservative Reaganite like me would trust.”
But Perry, after initially attracting broad support in surveys following his announcement last summer, saw his support crumble in the fall after weak debate performances and sharp attacks on his support of a Texas policy giving in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. His trajectory was reminiscent of an actor who looked perfect for a part -- but flubbed his lines during the audition.
Perry was, by far, the most logical candidate to unite the right against Romney. His failure to do so set off weeks of turmoil that haven’t ended yet. “People assumed that he was going to be the main challenger to Romney,” said Bell, “and when he fell that really left a vacuum.”
Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich have each auditioned for the role that Perry lost -- and each has failed to hold it either. The latest candidate to reach for that mantle is Santorum, whose surge in the Iowa polls represents a distant aftershock from Perry’s failure to capture the evangelical Christian and strong tea party supporters now fueling the former Pennsylvania senator’s rise. Indeed, it was a measure of Perry’s lowered sights that at Saturday’s event he directed most of his rhetorical fire against Santorum, a candidate he had long ignored, rather than Romney.
But Perry’s focus reflected his diminished reality: He can’t afford to worry about Romney while Santorum is threatening to emerge from Iowa as the favored choice among conservatives, especially Christian conservatives.
Another sign of Perry’s diminished reality came Saturday when his campaign announced that he would travel from Iowa directly to South Carolina, skipping New Hampshire. Once Perry senior strategist David Carney took pride in insisting that Perry would contest the Granite State, despite the disappointing performance there of other Texans like Phil Gramm and George W. Bush. Now, given the likely results in Iowa, Perry has been reduced to hoping that his regional ties will allow him to make a last stand in the South.
That could happen -- but since the Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary moved into their current alignments in 1980, no GOP candidate has won South Carolina without capturing either Iowa or New Hampshire. Unless Perry generates an unexpectedly strong showing in Iowa, he’d have to defy history to get a real second chance in South Carolina. It’s more likely that Perry will prove the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression -- to the great advantage of Mitt Romney, the candidate Perry once seemed positioned to eclipse.