Last weekend’s Ames straw poll made for great political theater, but the important action was taking place in South Carolina and New Hampshire, where Texas Gov. Rick Perry kicked off his presidential campaign.
Perry, the straight-talking three-term governor, is bringing to the race a message and biography that couldn’t contrast any more starkly with President Obama’s.
(RELATED: Rick Perry's Political History)
He grew up in rural Paint Creek, Texas, farming cotton in his early years, and attending the state’s land-grant university, Texas A&M. Obama went to Harvard Law School, earned his political chops in Chicago, spending much of his early career in academia. Perry has governed a low-tax, low-regulation state at a time when the president has sought to expand government’s role in the economy. The Texas governor's blunt advocacy of conservatism and faith-tinged rhetoric couldn’t be any different from Obama’s nuanced rhetoric and cautious governing style.
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And he’s going to be bragging about his record of job creation in Texas, compared to the economic stagnation that’s been prevalent nationwide.
The money line from his kickoff speech: "I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, D.C. as inconsequential in your life as I can." Those 18 words will define Perry's candidacy, and is a pitch-perfect appeal to a Republican primary and caucus electorate angry at Obama’s policies and a November electorate disenchanted about the lack of jobs and economic growth. If he becomes the nominee, it would also set up an epic general election with two divergent visions of the appropriate role for government in American life.
The contest for the GOP nomination, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a compelling affair between Perry and Mitt Romney, the two heavyweights in the GOP field. Romney has run a cautious campaign, focusing more on preparing for a general election than catering to the conservative interests that predominate in Republican primaries.
Polls show Romney as the front-runner, but one vulnerable to a serious challenge. He achieved front-runner status after other serious contenders decided not to run or flamed out. His campaign has been premised as much on electability as it is around a narrative about his record. It’s a strategy that’s worked very well so far, but with Perry now in the race, he’ll need to present a compelling case for his own candidacy.
Going after Perry as a career politician -- which was the Romney campaign’s opening gambit -- doesn’t sound like the most effective line of attack, given that Romney has essentially been running for president since 2007. This campaign has changed markedly in the last two weeks, and Romney will need to quickly show he can connect with conservatives and speak their language.
With the Ames victory, Michele Bachmann has proven her political chops, but it will be difficult for the Minnesota congresswoman to sustain her momentum throughout the nomination process -- with the media spotlight on high and a Republican establishment looking to rally for the rival most likely to beat her if she gains traction. She has to prove she can put together a coalition beyond the most ardent tea partiers and cultural conservatives. She’ll face her toughest test holding onto support against a candidate with a more accomplished résumé and his own healthy dose of charisma, to boot.
Make no mistake: Perry is no flash-in-the-pan candidate, akin to Fred Thompson in 2008 or Wesley Clark in 2004. Just before he entered the race, national polls showed him at the top of the Republican field, narrowly behind Mitt Romney. He wasn’t even on the Ames ballot, yet managed to tally 718 write-in votes, ahead of Romney’s total. Despite being caricatured as a candidate whose appeal is limited to hard-right conservatives and Southerners, he’s spent much of his early focus in New Hampshire, a state where social conservatism is shunned, but which has a proud libertarian tradition in line with Perry’s message.
Perry has his own obvious vulnerabilities. Close your eyes and listen to him speak, and you could mix him up with George W. Bush. Even though they come from very different backgrounds (Bush, an establishment blue-blood, versus Perry, who grew up poor on the Texas plains) and their political teams in Texas are famously distant, voters may not be ready for another straight-talking Texas governor as president.
That said, the political environment has changed markedly in the last several months. With Obama’s job-approval rating now below 40 percent in Gallup’s latest survey, nominating a candidate based on electability is becoming a nonissue for Republicans. If the economy fails to grow -- and the current economic forecasts are grim -- it’s hard to see Perry’s style being a serious impediment to becoming president. The notion that a three-term governor of the second most-populous state in the country is somehow unelectable simply because of his Texas twang strikes me as fanciful.
If Obama is in trouble, Perry should be able to hold the states Bush carried in 2004. He could be stronger in some of the Southern battlegrounds, like North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia. But he’d probably face a higher hurdle winning suddenly-competitive Democratic-leaning, Rust-Belt states like Pennsylvania and Michigan, where his style could wear thin and Romney would be a better match for the electorate.
No two elections are alike, but in style and substance, this year’s Republican primary and general election are shaping up to be replays of the 1980 presidential race: President runs as an outsider looking to clean up Washington, but deals with the harsh reality of an economy out of control; a Republican primary pitting an outspoken conservative governor of a large state, considered unelectable by Democrats and the establishment, against a moderate blue-blood preparing for a candidacy for some time.
Reagan, the famous cowboy, dispatched George H.W. Bush and went on to win 489 electoral votes in 44 states. We’re about to see if another cowboy will repeat the trick.