There is no doubt which Republican won the first week after the Iowa straw poll. Despite taking the Iowa showdown, Michelle Bachmann ended up playing defence to Texas Governor Rick Perry during Perry’s first week in the race. Never mind his controversial statements about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his dismissal of climate change science as a hoax, Perry has changed the nature and the tone of the nomination race. He has shown he is a candidate to be reckoned with.
Presumptive favourite Mitt Romney reacted coyly by staying on course, not rising to the bait, and sticking to an economic message while attacking the Obama record. Former Bush operative Karl Rove was not as subtle and harshly criticized Perry for the Bernanke comment. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman also attacked the Texas governor, knowing full well that Perry’s early supporters would not defect his way.
While there are concerns about this Republican field, it became evident that Perry has the profile, the record, and the finances to make a real run. It may actually scare off any latecomers such as Sarah Palin.
Detractors, especially Democrats, went after his job creation record, alleging the jobs were close to minimum wage and that many were related to defense sector growth due to the two “Bush wars” and Obama’s stimulus measures. They also attacked him for mismanaging his state’s ballooning debt and his recent budget shortfall. Unlike Romney, however, Perry is not running from his record. His message discipline may be wanting and his record the object of legitimate debate, but his narrative is appealing to the base and he will have an impact as early as the next debate.
Perry will benefit from being the darling of Tea Partiers and social conservatives in the primary season. These are the militants likely to come out and vote. Romney may have a stronger establishment veneer, but he risks losing on the enthusiasm factor. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina loom as decisive stages this early in the race. Perry needs to win Iowa and South Carolina—and be competitive in New Hampshire—to take the lead. This is an entirely possible scenario.
History shows the GOP usually chooses candidates that have an appeal beyond the base, with the exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964. This should favour Romney, who was competitive in 2008 and has shown much improvement on the campaign trail this time around. His first two debate performances have won plaudits overall. But the rules are different in the nomination process this time around. Gone is the ‘winner take all’ formula, ensuring more polarizing candidates a longer stay in the race if they energize their supporters. Perry seems to be able to do just that.
The main argument against Perry is that he will be a hard sell to independent voters and therefore will be an easier target for Obama in a general election. But there is no guarantee that this consideration will play at the primary level. Barring a flame-out in the early going, there is more to Perry’s candidacy than meets the eye.