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.
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.