“Voters want someone who is right on the issues, they want a fighter, and they want someone who can beat Obama,” said Republican pollster Jon Lerner. “When you look at the candidates who have had a lot of motion in their poll numbers, first Donald Trump, then Herman Cain, then Michele Bachmann, what do they all have in common? They were all perceived as conservatives and fighters, which led to their rise, but there was uncertainty about whether they were winners, which contributed to their fall.”
Buffeted by those competing impulses, voters have spent much of the year toying with one candidate after the next, only to decide they’re still looking. This uncertainty has been both a boon and a bane to different candidacies and different times, but it is especially tricky for the front-runners.
Now it is Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s turn.
Perry is a crowd-pleasing campaigner whose conservatism, combined with 10 years of executive experience, helped him quickly eclipse Bachmann and the rest of the field in polls soon after he entered the race last month. Yet he remains unproven for a big swath of the electorate. With his fiery rhetoric and unapologetic critiques of Social Security and the federal income tax, Perry has had no trouble rallying the GOP’s conservative wing. But he has yet to convince a broader audience that he is ready to face off against Obama.
Whether Perry can avoid that Bachmann’s boom-to-bust fate will be shaped largely by how he defines himself at a series of presidential debates scheduled in the coming weeks, including one Monday evening in Tampa. A crucial factor is whether former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the onetime front-runner and Perry’s main rival for the nomination, defines Perry first. Increasingly, the nomination fight is being framed as a contest between the two men.
Like Bachmann’s rise and fall, the Perry-Romney face-off illustrates the conflicting goals of many Republicans still shopping for a president. Many Republicans, and particularly tea partyers, remain wary of Romney largely because of his support for a health-care overhaul in Massachusetts that became the basis for the Obama plan.
But Romney’s business experience — and a formidable organization that he began building during his first run for president in 2008 — have attracted the support of plenty of Republicans, particularly those tied to the party establishment, who view him as best positioned to defeat Obama, a winner.
“Obviously, Governor Perry’s got to come in and introduce himself,” said Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who dropped out of the race last month. “The polls would indicate that Mitt Romney does a little better against Obama. But this is a long road.”