But that record may be misleading. In Texas, there are no limits on political contributions, and, according to the watchdog group Texans for Public Justice, roughly half of Perry’s total there came from just 204 sources—mostly rich donors in the construction, energy, finance, insurance, and real-estate industries. As a presidential candidate, Perry will need to deploy a wide national network of bundlers capable of rolling up thousands of $2,500-a-pop contributions. Perry, to be sure, is the outgoing chair of the Republican Governors Association, so he has ample ties to potential big-time bundlers outside Texas. But whether he can mobilize them rapidly—and in the face of mounting Establishment worries about him, per the above—remains an enormous open question, and one crucial to his prospects.
4. An unlikely but inestimable ally.
In the midst of his controversial comments last week, Perry was hammered mercilessly by every liberal under the sun—except one. “I think that everybody who runs for president, it probably takes them a little bit of time before they start realizing that ... you’ve got to be a little more careful about what you say,” President Obama told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “But I’ll cut [Perry] some slack. He’s only been at it for a few days now.”
It’s no secret that the White House would prefer to run next fall against the likes of Perry (or, perish the thought, Bachmann) than Romney, the easier to paint Obama’s opponent as unacceptably outré and even scary. Less appreciated is how significant a player Obama’s reelection team—along with its allied outside groups—may be in the Republican primaries. By spending millions of dollars on anti-Romney ads and pointing out the similarities of his Massachusetts health-care plan to Obamacare at every opportunity, they may be able to function effectively as a pro-Perry “super pac”—and one with greater resources and media reach than anything Perry and his allies can muster. The irony here would be rich, for sure, and the effect bordering on perverse. But don’t kid yourself: The possibility of things playing out just this way is one of many nightmares that keep Romney’s advisers awake at night.
5.The joys of clarity.
For countless observers on the left and more than a few on the moderate right, the fact that Perry is being taken seriously as a Class-A presidential candidate is a cause for fear and trembling. But if Perry’s debut last week proved nothing else, it’s that such reactions are not just overwrought but misguided. For the past two and a half years, among the central questions in our politics have been these: What exactly constitutes the contemporary GOP? Is it now fully in the thrall of its populist, insurgent forces? Or does some semblance of your father’s Republican Party remain? And if so, how much?
A presidential campaign should be, among other things, a place where such essential questions are hashed out and the answers revealed for all to see. What was needed, then, was a clear contest between the Establishment and tea-vangelical wings of the party. What was lacking, though, was a credible standard-bearer for the latter: a bright-red tea-vangelical candidate with governing credibility, with a record, with the political skills to stand a realistic chance of claiming the party’s nomination. Neither Michele Bachmann nor Sarah Palin, whatever their strengths and the extent of their appeal, remotely qualified for that slot. Rick Perry manifestly does. What he brings to the race is a welcome clarity, and the prospect of a kind of challenge to Romney that has been lacking until now. How Romney handles that challenge will tell us all we need to know about him. And how the Republican electorate ultimately judges them will tell us everything we need to know about the party.