The 2012 Republican presidential nomination is Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s to lose. The question is: Will he blow it? To be sure, there are less polarizing Republicans, ones who are, have been, or should have been running, who would stand a better chance of winning over the between-the-40-yard-line independents who tend to decide big elections. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would stand a better chance of winning; former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty would not likely have offended the middle; and my guess is that Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, if they had run, would have fared better as well. But Perry is the dominant figure right now and, given the listless economy, even Perry, if nominated, would have a 50-50 chance of beating President Obama (Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, maybe not).
Over the next 60 to 90 days, through this endless stream of debates and hundreds of speeches, appearances, and public utterances, the critical question will be: Does Rick Perry demonstrate the capacity to grow and mature as a candidate and to maximize his chances of winning a general election, or does he fail to recognize the differences between voters in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Columbus, or Denver and those in Houston, Dallas, Waco, or Amarillo?
Yes, Rick Perry has been the governor of Texas for 10 years and is undefeated in his 27-year electoral career—10-0. But to the extent that Texas today is a two-party state, the Republican Party is one and the tea party is the other. Statements, whether offhand or planned, could be made in Texas and not raise an eyebrow but would be potentially major gaffes in a lot of areas outside the Lone Star State.
One lesson that national Republican figures, particularly the more conservative ones, have to learn is that Republican and conservative national candidates are never likely to get more than their fair share of breaks from the news media. Simply put, they have to be careful—in Texas, not so much, but on the national stage, absolutely. But careful doesn’t come naturally to some candidates—Perry and Bachmann come to mind—and there is a terrible price to be paid for not being careful.
Two-thirds of the Republican Party’s voters are very conservative, not in the tradition of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, or Bob Dole. Indeed, given tax increases and liberalized abortion laws that Ronald Reagan agreed to over the course of his career as California governor and president, even Reagan would not fit comfortably into the mix of the most conservative wing that makes up the bulk of the GOP. This conservative wing, whether of the tea party or the social, cultural, and religious wing of the GOP, want a fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners nominee, a description that fits Perry and Bachmann to a T. They want a Rick Perry.
Conversely, most in the party do not want to nominate Romney. Putting aside Romney’s moderate past in the Massachusetts era of his political career, stylistically he is like a tennis or golf fan in an arena filled with not just hockey fans but Philadelphia Flyers fans (in my opinion, the loudest and most obnoxious fans in all of sports, even more than Eagles and Phillies fans). Although Romney’s Mormon faith is an issue for some, even if Romney was a High Church Episcopalian, there would be a certain stylistic discomfort. There are folks in his party who would be more comfortable with a fire-and-brimstone Baptist; and so he wouldn’t be their cup of tea either. Romney’s only shot is if Perry so thoroughly marginalizes himself, he becomes perceived as unelectable.
Historically, electability is not among the top considerations in the minds of most voters in making their nomination choices. But we are not living in normal times. Just as liberals became apoplectic with George W. Bush, conservatives have come to be that way with President Obama. Polls show the party is evenly split today on the question of electability and ideological compatibility, but right now, all the top Republicans are running relatively even with Obama. If, say, a double-digit differential developed, how would the average Republican voter feel?
So the key is to watch Perry and to get a sense of his capacity to turn the corner from being a Texas candidate to being one who can compete effectively in the dozen or so battleground states that will determine this election. Most normal, well-adjusted voters are hardly paying attention to the race at this stage; only the junkies are really focused. Perry has made, and will make, more mistakes. The question is whether he learns and grows from them. Trial and error is a fantastic teacher, assuming one recognizes and learns from the errors. It’s more about learning how to say things: showing more judiciousness, contemplating the consequences of saying things one way versus another. If he learns, if he can effectively make the turn from being a successful practitioner in a one-party state to being an effective candidate in a much more ideologically diverse state, the nomination is his.
This article appears in the Sep. 20, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.