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Rick Perry and the demons of Fred Thompson and Wesley Clark

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry stands outside his tour bus during a campaign stop in Florence, S.C., last week. (Tim Dominick/The State/MCT) Stop us if you’ve heard this before.

A late entrant into the presidential race whips up all kind of buzz and jumps into a race where the rest of the field is off to a supposedly lackluster start, only to have his first day on the campaign be his best. By far.

It happened to Wesley Clark in 2004 and Fred Thompson in 2008. But what about Rick Perry in 2012?

Ever since Perry got into the race nearly two weeks ago (it’s only been two weeks?), this idea has been bandied about by political observers and strategists who question whether there’s much substance behind the Rick Perry boomlet.

That plot thickened Thursday after Gallup showed, as with Clark and Thompson, Perry has sprinted out of the gate and gobbled up a double-digit lead nationally over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, leading him 29 percent to 17 percent.

Gallup polling around the same time in 2007 showed Thompson jumping up to 22 percent, and in 2003 the pollster had Clark leading the Democratic primary with that same number.

Thompson was supposed to be the guy who took advantage of the lack of a true-blue conservative in 2008 primary, while Clark was the guy who was supposed to calm fears about the Democratic Party drifting too far left on the war in Iraq.

Soon, though, we realized that Thompson’s heart wasn’t really in the presidential race, and Clark suffered from a series of early mistakes that doomed his candidacy.

Perry, to varying degrees, has dealt with both of those charges.

The Texas governor had long said he wasn’t interested in running for president, so when he changed his mind, many wondered if he would be up for the kind of nationwide campaigning, retail politicking and constant fundraising that is required. He’s also already had a few early dust-ups, including his comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and treason.

But in other ways, he’s quite different than both Thompson and Clark.

Clark had never run a campaign before, and Thompson had run just two — both relatively sleepy U.S. Senate campaigns in Tennessee. Perry, meanwhile, has endured several hotly contested statewide campaigns as state agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and governor. And his most recent romp over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 governor primary should put to rest any doubt that he’s formidable in a Republicans primary.

At the same time, it’s very possible that this Gallup poll will be his best one. That’s not to say, of course, that he’s going to flame out like Clark and Thompson did — just that it won’t always be this easy, and he’s got plenty of trials ahead.

Early polling is largely based on how much a given candidate is in the news. Voters right now are fickle and not paying terribly close attention — especially when it comes to national polls — and Perry’s big early lead should be taken with a Texas-sized grain of salt.

(Perry adviser David Carney even called the poll “meaningless.”)

As Perry cements himself as a frontrunner, he becomes more of a target for other candidates, and the big question with him is how he handles himself at debates, which he has avoided in Texas, and with a voracious national media.

“What will separate him from being tossed on top of the Fred Thompsons and Wes Clarks in the trash heap of savior candidates is whether or not he recovers from early, almost certain mistakes,” said one GOP strategist.

Others note that the problems with Clark and Thompson have already been largely addressed with Perry’s early campaign.

GOP strategist Mike Murphy said that, while there are valid concerns about Perry as a general election nominee, he’s already shown himself to be a legitimate politician in the primary — unlike Clark — with a real desire to run for president — unlike Thompson.

“There might have been a hesitation there; there ain’t no hesitation now,” Murphy said. “So far so good, at least in the Republican primary.”

In the weeks ahead, Perry will surely be tested, and the race will in all likelihood tighten quite a bit when it comes to these national polls.

All this poll really tells us is that there is a universe of voters who are excited about Perry; now it’s his chance to show them he’s worthy of their support in a way that Clark and Thompson couldn’t.

Romney doubles down on ‘corporations are people’: Far from backing away from his contention that “corporations are people,” Romney is doubling down.

In a campaign stop Wednesday in New Hampshire, Romney brought up the remark — which some have portrayed as a gaffe — unprompted.

“Corporations — they’re made up of people,” Romney said. “They’re just groups of people that come together for work. When you say ‘tax corporations’ — the steel and the vinyl and the concrete, they don’t pay taxes. Only people do.”

It’s not yet clear how Romney’s remarks will cut. He may alienate more populist voters, but the remarks are more likely to be used in a general election attack than a primary one.

Fixbits:

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman calls his fellow GOP presidential candidates “an interesting assortment of characters.”

Former presidential candidate John Edwards has asked for a later start for his trial.

Perry is reaching out to Iowans who have been (unsuccessfully) wooing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to run for president.

Florida House speaker Dean Cannon backs Perry.

On second thought, may Newt Gingrich didn’t pad his list of Twitter followers.

New York GOP special election candidate Bob Turner disputes a report that quotes him saying 9/11 volunteers shouldn’t receive health benefits under the Zadroga bill.

Must-reads:

Obama Weighs Plans to Boost Engineering, Construction Jobs” — Carol E. Lee, Wall Street Journal

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s ‘charm offensive’” — Brian Donohue, Newark Star-Ledger

Romney hits ‘sanctuary cities’ again” — Domenico Montenaro, MSNBC

Obama’s efforts to woo independents derailed by debt-ceiling agreement” — Ian Swanson, The Hill

‘Candidate super PACs’ surge ahead in the 2012 money race” — Dan Eggen, Washington Post

100+ CEOs promise no campaign donations” — Charles Riley, CNN

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