In South Carolina today Gov. Rick Perry announced his run for the presidency at a gathering put on by RedState (a hard-core conservative Web site, which opposed the debt-ceiling deal and has battled against Republican leaders in Congress). He struck conservative themes in a well-delivered if somewhat conventional speech:

I come to South Carolina because I will not sit back and accept the path that America is on. Because a great country requires a better direction. Because a renewed nation needs a new president.

It is time to get America working again. And that’s why, with the support of my family and an unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today as a candidate for president of the United States.

It’s time for America to believe again. It’s time to believe that the promise of our future is far greater than even our best days behind us. It’s time to believe again in the potential of private enterprise, set free from the shackles of overbearing federal government. And it’s time to truly restore our standing in the world and renew our faith in freedom as the best hope for peace in this world that’s beset with strife.

The change we seek will never emanate out of Washington, D.C. It will come from the windswept prairies of Middle America, the farms and factories across this great land, from the hearts and minds of the good-hearted Americans who will accept not a future that is less than our past, patriots — patriots who will not be consigned to a fate of less freedom in exchange for more government.

And he had plenty of barbs for President Obama: “In reality, this is just the most recent downgrade. The fact is for nearly three years, President Obama has been downgrading American jobs, downgrading our standing in the world, downgrading our financial stability, downgrading confidence and downgrading the hope of a better future for our children.” Perry did not shy away from foreign policy, either:

America’s standing in the world is in peril, not only because of disastrous economic policies, but from the incoherent muddle that they call foreign policy. Our president has insulted our friends and he’s encouraged our enemies, thumbing his nose at traditional allies like Israel. He seeks to dictate new borders for the Middle East and the oldest democracy there, Israel, while he is an abject failure in his constitutional duty to protect our borders in the United States.

His foreign policy seems to be based on alienating our traditional allies, while basing our domestic agenda on importing those failed Western European social values. We don’t need a president who apologizes for America. We need a president who protects and projects those values.

Despite Perry’s recent attendance at a prayer rally, it’s clear that jobs and the economy are going to be front and center. He reminded the crowd in South Carolina: “Since June of 2009, Texas is responsible for more than 40 percent of all of the new jobs created in America. Now think about that. We’re home to less than 10 percent of the population in America, but 40 percent of all the new jobs were created in that state.” Likewise, his Web site touts his recent record:“In June of 2011, 32,000 net new jobs were created in Texas — more than any of the other states. From June 2010 to June 2011, Texas led all other states by far, adding 220,000 net new jobs.”)

The decision to horn in on the Ames Straw Poll’s big news day has already raised hackles. As Politico noted, “That singular act of scene-stealing has prompted hand-wringing and hurt feelings from Iowans concerned about their state’s prized place in the political pecking order. . . . It’s Perry’s choice to go directly from Charleston to a meet-and-greet in New Hampshire. And it’s Perry’s choice to appear in Iowa on Sunday, giving the state’s political class something other than the straw poll results to chew on.” He might well decide, like Mitt Romney, to in essence cede Iowa to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a state in which she is now quite plainly the belle of the ball.

His message , that Obama is hastening our decline economically and internationally, has the benefit of accuracy, widespread appeal and relevance. (Like the Tea Party that he courts, it also puts social issues somewhat off to the side.) The Standard & Poor’s downgrade has become a metaphor for America’s economic slippage and for the president’s inability to set the country on a path to recovery. Perry is smartly capitalizing on that development, using it as a refrain to highlight the administration’s incompetence domestically and internationally.

Perry must now navigate a path between Bachmann and Mitt Romney. In other words, he must be more credible than she and more conservative than the other two top-tier candidates. Bachmann showed her limitations in the debate Thursday. As Paul Gigot wrote:

Her admirers like her willingness to fight, but her claim that the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. debt vindicated her refusal to vote for a debt-ceiling increase illustrates why voters will never trust her with the White House and I doubt even the nomination.

Had Republicans forced a post-Aug. 2 shutdown of government services and risked default, Moody’s and Fitch would have joined S&P in downgrading U.S. debt. Either Ms. Bachmann knows this, in which case she is merely playing to the talk radio GOP base. Or she doesn’t know it, which makes her unready to be president. The Romney camp is hoping she wins the straw poll and the caucuses next year because it will make its road to the nomination easier. Her main achievement in the end may be to fatally wound Mr. Pawlenty.

Perry will not improve his chances by following such flights of fancy. He must be the serious conservative, the standard-bearer of successful reform and job creation.

As for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor is proving far more formidable than many imagined. He can sidestep an attack. He can reel off a list of policies in a one-minute answer. And to date he has been the contender who most looked and sounded the part of a presidential nominee. Perry can and almost certainly will try to knock Romney on health care and make the pitch that he, rather than Romney, is the most authentic conservative who can beat Obama. But I don’t think that is going to get him very far. For one thing, their position on issues is not likely to differ substantially.

Moreover, those who won’t vote for Romney, for example, because of health care or because they still can’t trust him on social issues, have already drifted to Bachmann. If Perry simply says, “Romney’s not conservative enough,” the question will still remain: Why Perry?

Perry’s task is therefore to prove himself more forceful, appealing, capable and dynamic than both Romney and Bachmann. Romney’s got a seven-point pitch on jobs; Perry has to be more credible (by stressing his own job creation record). Romney sounds solid on national security; Perry must appear more determined. In the same way that Romney seems more presidential than Bachmann, Perry must seem to be a more vivid, effective combatant than Romney.

Perry’s late entry is also a reminder (both in a positive and negative sense for his own fortunes) that the rest of the field is decidedly un-Southern. Romney, Bachmann and the rest of the field, in speech and manner, don’t rekindle the memory of George W. Bush; Perry does. He’ll have to demonstrate he has appeal to non-Texans. It’s telling he announced in South Carolina, but will he wear well in New Hampshire?

It won’t be easy for Perry to rise to the top of the pack.. Romney is well versed on the issues; Perry has gaps (e.g., foreign policy). Romney is a very experienced debater; Perry’s untested. Romney has a private-sector background to point to; Perry does not. Romney at this point has been fully vetted; Perry is going to have to withstand the downpour of unflattering accounts that question how good his record as governor has been. And voters concerned about electability will no doubt worry that Perry’s accent and Texas pride may not play well in all parts of the country.

Perry will have plenty of money, a record of job creation and a persona that matches up with the Tea Party’s populism. The challenge for Perry is to prove himself a superior candidate and the most effective opponent to go up against Obama in the general election. Can he do it? Well, that is the question of the hour.