The entry of Rick Perry into the Republican presidential race has been something like the application of defibrillator paddles to its collective solar plexus—bracing and clarifying, exhilarating or terrifying (depending on your point of view), and, most of all, impossible to ignore. The ascendancy of parochial politicians to the national stage is nothing new, of course. But most of them tend to sneak up on us, seeping into our consciousness stealthily, claiming headlines gradually, climbing in the polls (if climb they do) slowly and methodically.
Not Perry. From the moment of his official announcement two Saturdays ago, he became the subject of nearly nonstop national media coverage and fever-pitch commentary as he barnstormed his way from South Carolina to New Hampshire to Iowa and back to the Granite State again. Was the rollout perfect? No, it was not, about which more shortly. But within three days of hurling himself into the fray, Perry could point to evidence that he was now the front-runner in the race, and not by a little. According to a Rasmussen poll of 1,000 likely GOP-primary voters—the first national survey conducted after the Ames straw poll and Perry’s entry—the Texas governor was favored by 29 percent of respondents, with Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann trailing by double digits, at 18 and 13 percent, respectively. Not too shabby for a few days’ work.
The first week of Perry’s candidacy, however, revealed much more than that the governor is indisputably a force to be reckoned with. Herewith, five takeaways to bear in mind as the Perry freight train keeps rumbling down the tracks—or goes careening off the rails.
1. The Tabasco candidate.
The widely bandied word on Perry before he got in was that he was a man who could uncork a speech, an assessment certainly borne out by his announcement oration. What was less understood by those outside of Texas was just how terrific a flesh-pressing, glad-handing retail politician he is—and just how much better he performs on that level than any of his rivals. For all of Romney’s increased comfort in debates and on the stump, the former Massachusetts governor remains an awkward figure in dealing with actual human beings; Bachmann is being tagged (accurately) for swathing herself in what Politico calls a “brittle, presidential-style cocoon ... a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers ... and preselected questioners.” Suffice to say, in places such as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, this contrast will serve Perry well.
But a more problematic side of Perry’s persona also came through last week: a hotness that if left unchecked can easily turn self-scalding. No doubt in certain quarters of the Republican nominating electorate, suggesting that Barack Obama may not love his country and vaguely threatening Ben Bernanke are a cause for attaboys. Among GOP Establishmentarians, by contrast, they are seen not merely as the sort of typical mistakes made by rookie presidential aspirants but as potential indications of deeper and less remediable flaws. Which brings us to …
2. The Rove factor.
That Bushworld’s master builder would emerge, as he did last week, as a Perry potshot-taker comes as no surprise to the political world; the history between the two and their respective cliques is long, tangled, and bitterly acrimonious. Yet few expected that Karl Christian would start firing quite so early or so pointedly, or that so many other house organs of the Establishment right would join the hunting party. Here you had the Wall Street Journal taking aim at Perry’s greatest vulnerability: his ability to beat Obama in a general election. And there you had the Weekly Standard ginning up rumors that Paul Ryan might launch a late bid—a notion also floated by Rove, along with that of a run by Chris Christie.
What practical effect does all this have on Perry? Well, to begin with, it says that Perry’s hopes of winning over a substantial portion of the party’s Establishment wing would likely be dashed if either Christie or Ryan does in fact dive in to the race—which I believe there is still a small chance of, despite all the official denials to the contrary. (There is also still a chance, believe it or not, that Sarah Palin will take the plunge, which would complicate his situation in altogether different ways.) Yet the safe bet remains that the field is now settled. In which case the greatest risk to Perry is that, with Rove and others pushing hard behind the scenes, the vast number of still-uncommitted mainline Republican donors and elected officials will drift into Romney’s corner, bolstering him for a war of attrition with Perry.
3. A Texas-size test of strength.
One little-noted fact about Perry’s first week in the race: It will have cost him a ton of money. (Moving a candidate around that quickly and seamlessly don’t come cheap.) For Perry to maintain his status as a top-tier candidate, let alone the new front-runner, will require him to haul in some serious dough, and fast. And because he is getting off to such a late start, he will have little margin for coming up short in any given week of fund-raising. The presumption is that Perry is one of the few politicians with no prior national profile who can pull this off because he hails from Texas. And indeed, he has been a prolific buckraker in the Lone Star State, ringing up $102 million since becoming governor in 2000.