But among savvy GOP strategists, Castellanos is in the distinct minority. “He’s a ferocious campaigner,” McKinnon says, “who’s had some very tough races, and he’ll throw a roundhouse without blinking.” Schmidt agrees: “He’s a southern Evangelical in a party filled with southern Evangelicals, so he starts out with a strong base culturally in the party. He’s a bona fide social conservative who has economic governing credibility. And he’s a brilliant politician.”
Perry, in other words, could be a bracket buster—a fusion candidate who can unite his party’s Establishment and populist factions, much as Reagan did in 1980. With his roots in the oil-rich Lone Star State, he can tap a deep financial well that would let him compete from a standing start in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, all of which feature electorates amenable to his appeal. Even as a not-yet-candidate, national polls put him a strong second to Romney. As for his intellectual heft, one Republican strategist remarks, “If you think of Reagan and W., being called too dumb to be president by folks in New York and California is one of the best early indicators that you might actually wind up being president.”
To take up residence in the Oval Office, of course, will require getting past Obama first. And make no mistake, the White House would prefer to face Perry—with his Bush-on-steroids affect, his talk of Texas seceding from the Union, and his capacity to scare off suburban swing-state voters and drive Democratic turnout through the roof—than either Romney or Huntsman; and in concert with its own super-PAC allies will do everything in its power to nudge the Republican-nomination contest toward that outcome. (Please note that the first TV spot run by a pro-Obama group was an anti-Romney attack ad.)
For Romney and Huntsman, Perry would present the same challenge: a rival who taps into the party’s visceral desire for a nominee able to both beat and beat up on Obama. Thus will Cain and Abel need to raise their games, put up their dukes, and not only make an argument about why Perry is unsuited to lead the GOP but also lay out a compelling positive alternative as to where and how they would shepherd the country—something neither has come within a country mile of doing so far. “The only way to defeat Obama is by being bigger than him, and this is gonna be a fight about who meets that test,” says Weaver. “It’s also gonna be a fight for the soul of our party and at least the short-term future of the country—and those are not small stakes.”
No, they’re not. For the past two-and-a-half years, the debate over that future has been gravely diminished by the petulance, nihilism, and vacuum of leadership on one side of the partisan aisle—set against which Obama’s very real flaws are trivial by comparison. At a time when America faces huge and fateful choices, little would serve the nation better than an election about them between two grown-ups. Do Huntsman or Romney qualify? Does Perry? We shall see. “In a perverse way, there’s not a truer moment in American politics than a tough campaign,” says Weaver. “It brings out the characters of these people, tells us who they really are—so I say, let it rip.”
Additional reporting by Steven Yaccino.