Right Turn readers know I’m no fan of early, national primary polls. But they do, after a time, begin to shape donors’ and activists’ perceptions of the race. So what do they see and what should they learn from the spate of national polls showing Texas Gov. Rick Perry leading Mitt Romney?
The Romney camp seems blasé about the polls, and to its credit, never touted the national polls that previously showed its candidate leading. They consider, with justification, that Perry has yet to be tested. He’s given no national TV or radio interviews, he keeps the press corps at arm’s length, and he has yet to debate the other candidates. As one political strategist not aligned with any campaign tells me, “I think it has a Trump-like quality to it at a moment following big-bang media attention, while the other candidates haven’t galvanized deep, broad support. It’s not that it isn’t impressive, it’s just untested.”
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t glean any meaning from the polls. For one thing, Perry’s entrance has short-circuited Rep. Michele Bachmann’s meteoric rise. Unless she begins to differentiate herself from Perry, it’s hard to see how she could regain momentum as Romney’s chief rival. She has been strong in the debates, and that, perhaps, is the best opportunity to focus on some of his liabilities that would hurt him in Iowa (e.g. mandatory HPV vaccination).
It’s also clear, from the polls and from his performance on the campaign trail, that Perry is no slouch. He’s going to be competing vigorously in the early states and he has a clear, credible message that is working so far (“staunch conservative with executive experience”). The question is whether, unlike Bachmann, he has staying power and can begin to present a compelling agenda. As one Republican insider put it, the “real question is: Is Perry the Flavor of the Month or can he make this permanent?”
The question for Perry’s opponents is when and how vigorously they engage him. Romney has been touting his private sector experience. Does he now go after Perry for his interventionist programs (“a state technology fund created six years ago at Perry’s behest has become controversial in Texas because of complaints about waste, fraud, and abuse, along with criticisms of reckless spending”)? Bachmann, as leader of Tea Partyers, will have to decide if she goes after him for his use of taxpayer dollars for travel and housing and the wealth he achieved in public office. Is Rick Santorum going to tie him up in knots over his contradictory views on the 10th Amendment? We saw with Tim Pawlenty that swinging at an opponent and missing can backfire, but Perry’s opponents are mistaken, I think, if they believe he will implode by himself.
The telling moments will come when Perry and his rivals begin to spar in debates and ad wars. With Perry and Romney, two well-funded and professional campaigners, the battle may rage for quite a while.
Finally, the polls tell us there is no market for Jon Huntsman despite the media fawning and his loud criticism of his opponents. He is dead last in the Gallup and PPP surveys. Maybe, no matter how much he pays John Weaver, Huntsman simply isn’t going to catch on.