With the once crowded Republican field coming into focus as a contest between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Republicans are bracing for protracted, bruising hostilities between the two that they say could last well into the primary season. It looks like the GOP nomination won’t be wrapped up quickly, and for the time being, party heavyweights and establishment Republicans are keeping to the sidelines, waiting to see how the race shakes out and hoping it doesn’t do permanent damage to the party once it does.
“I clearly have the impression that Perry and Romney are both going to be well-funded, well-run campaigns that could go all the way through the calendar,” said Republican strategist Scott Reed, manager of Kansas then-Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign. “I don’t see a stampeding one way or the other. I think this thing is still shaking out,” Reed said.
A pair of well-financed and skillfully run campaigns could confound early-voting states’ efforts to play kingmaker, instead teasing the nomination race out well into next year. While Perry’s outspoken conservatism still unsettles many in the party’s establishment, Romney’s never-solidified air of inevitability has faded as Perry’s emergence has, at last, presented a formidable and credible rival who could stretch Romney into a lengthy primary. And the longer the party’s ideological divisions linger, the more damage they can do.
“I thought the debate in Florida [on Monday] was not a good night for the Republican Party,” Reed said, “because it highlighted a schism in the party between the establishment wing and the tea party wing, and I think it is a precursor for what we’re going to see next spring.”
Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., predicted a back-and-forth between Romney and Perry over GOP powerbrokers that drags into next year. “I think they’re both doing a good job of articulating and delineating that which they are from the other,” he said. “And I think that will be healthy for the party, to some point. I think it will also create a quagmire pit in about 60 or 90 days. I think the tough part comes when you have to actually start proving yourself in early February and early January, and that’s when the momentum question will be answered.”
Scott said he expected to endorse “in late October, maybe early November.”
Other national GOP figures have been breaking for both candidates—former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty for Romney on Monday, followed by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval for Perry. But other major party players have hung back. And the other candidates—Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex.; and pizza magnate Herman Cain—have not peeled off major Pawlenty backers or other major Republican names.
Nevada Republican Party Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian called the race for big donors “a toss-up” for her state, despite Romney’s caucus win there in 2008 and what she called “a very strong support group” for the former Massachusetts governor. Perry’s arrival in the race last month has checked Romney’s momentum, she said. “I think people are a little bit more apprehensive until he comes to visit and they find out more about him,” Tarkanian said. “I think people are going to hold off for now, until they learn more about Rick Perry.”
Brian Ballard, Romney’s Florida finance co-chair, acknowledged that several Floridians who have made high-dollar contributions in the past remain sidelined. “There’s a lot of the Bush money guys that are kind of still sitting around,” Ballard said.
The Texas governor’s failure to wow the rank-and-file in the debates has given vent to the long-simmering establishment concern that his appeal may be Texas-sized, but circumscribed not far beyond that. And Romney’s inability to excite the party’s grassroots is well chronicled, likely only exacerbated by the contrast he is trying to draw with Perry.
“My suspicion is that the Romney people, their game is a strategic one, and the theory is to begin planting the seeds of doubts in the minds of independents that Perry cannot be trusted, so when the head-to-head polling, Romney versus Obama and Perry [versus] Obama, starts to matter, in mid-December, then they’ll all fall to Romney,” said Republican strategist Rich Galen.
Perry is taking fire from the right as well—over his relatively moderate policies on illegal immigration, his decision to require vaccinations for young girls against a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cancer, and an embarrassing youthful indiscretion: his 1988 endorsement of Al Gore, then a Democratic candidate for president.
“Are those Perry’s final answers?” asked Republican strategist Jim Dyke, referring to Perry’s debate struggles. “If they are, people will make a decision based on that. These things play out over the course of years, in Mitt Romney’s case, at the presidential level. And Perry’s been doing this about a month. Now, that’s not an excuse, but he’s got to work it out quick.”
Perry advisers acknowledge that he needs to offer better answers on Social Security, immigration, the HPV vaccinations, and the Texas employment picture and how much it benefited from what Romney called “four aces” dealt to Perry. They acknowledge a natural learning curve and point out that Perry’s Monday night debate performance came just under a month after his official entrance in the race, a period that has forced him to bone up on issues, launch a frenetic fundraising schedule, and oversee the build-out of a national campaign infrastructure.
In effect, Perry’s supernova and subsequent debate problems have served to further freeze the flow, in any direction, of GOP power brokers. Still uncommitted are a host of big-name Republicans who are either in key states are possessed of a national brand: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad; Florida Gov. Rick Scott; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.; Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa; Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; Ohio Gov. John Kasich; and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell among them.
Some Perry advisers are hopeful that a gubernatorial affinity could swing some of those players their way.
“I believe that governors' endorsements matter more than anybody else’s,” said Henry Barbour, a Mississippi lobbyist and Perry adviser, whose uncle, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, has stayed neutral and recently pledged his fundraising prowess to American Crossroads. “But governors have much more control and infrastructure in their states. And they have a campaign apparatus, some of them just elected last year, that’s fresh and can jump in and really make a difference.”
Henry called his uncle “unlikely” to endorse. His brother, Austin, is backing Romney, leading to some fratricidal tweets between the two. Gov. Barbour and Perry are “genuine friends,” Barbour said of his uncle, “… but Haley’s made very plain that he’s not supporting any candidate in the race.”