Romney has long been considered the front-runner, albeit one who has stirred only limited passion within the party. But it is the emergence of Perry and Bachmann, who was lightly regarded until she began to demonstrate strong appeal to tea party and other conservative activists, that has greatly changed the race.
Bachmann was not considered a potentially strong candidate when the year began, but her victory in Saturday’s straw poll cemented her status in the upper ranks of the GOP field. Perry long said that he would never run in 2012, but the shifting circumstances of the Republican contest through the first half of the year created a sizable opportunity that he has seized upon.
Bachmann’s victory produced the first major casualty of the race, when Pawlenty, who finished third after Bachmann and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), abruptly ended his candidacy Sunday morning.
The busy weekend concluded with Perry and Bachmann sharing the stage at a Black Hawk County Republican Party dinner Sunday night in Waterloo, which is Bachmann’s birthplace.
The dinner provided an early measure of the interest surrounding Perry’s candidacy and displayed the contrasting styles and agendas of the two candidates, with both assuring the audience that they are in the race to win.
Noting that he is a late arrival in the contest, Perry said, “Sometimes it takes me awhile to get into something, like this presidential race, but let me tell ya: When I’m in, I’m in all the way.”
Bachmann was equally emphatic. “People feel it now, the fire, they recognize that Obama can be beat,” she said. “They want to make sure that we don’t just have the other team wearing the other jersey. They want to make sure that they have a champion, a fighter, somebody who’s going to stand up and have guts.”
The Republican race is now a series of likely contrasts, with Romney cast as the establishment candidate who will portray himself as a former businessman who understands how to create jobs and as the candidate who has the best chance of defeating President Obama in November 2012.
Perry will challenge Romney on the economic front and will play on the anti-Washington message that he has been sharpening since Obama took office in early 2009. Bachmann remains the insurgent in the race.
For those Republicans most upset with Obama, she will cast herself as the candidate who has fought him harder than anyone else.