Texas Gov. Rick Perry is doing all the things one would do before jumping into a presidential primary. The Post reports: “Texas Gov. Rick Perry has been dialing GOP establishment bigwigs across the country. In phone calls that sometimes stretch more than a half-hour, Perry asks the same questions: Is the door open for a new candidate? And how wide is it open?” But the real question is how wide is it open for him?
Perry has unmistakable advantages. He’s the nation’s longest-serving governor. He’s got a vast fundraising network. He’s challenged the Obama administration on everything from Obamacare to EPA regulations. He is arguably more telegenic than Tim Pawlenty, more conservative than Mitt Romney and more experienced as a chief executive in the public sector than all the other contenders.
Still, he’s never run for national office, is prone to controversial statements and seems to lack an affirmative national agenda, given his fondness for the 10th Amendment. His critics call him a blowhard and a showboater. He’s never shown the passion for policy that Pawlenty and other contenders have demonstrated.
The stickier questions for him may be how and where he fits into the field. Does he try to make an appearance in Ames and risk losing badly to Rep. Michele Bachmann? Does he skip Iowa altogether as Jon Huntsman has? Maybe he needs to skip New Hampshire, where his Texas swagger and social conservative bona fides are less attractive to an electorate that includes many independent voters and libertarians.
His biggest problem, aside from his own limited experience in presidential politics and some ethics questions, is plainly Bachmann. She’s sitting atop a chunk of the electorate that he must capture in order to become the viable not-Romney. He can play the “executive experience” card, but that has proved ineffective for Pawlenty. He can argue he’s more electable than the spitfire congresswoman (although that argument is usually a loser in Republican primaries). He can try to outshine her in debates, although she’s proved herself capable in that setting. Or he can wait and hope she self-destructs. That might have seemed reasonable a month or so ago; now, a more disciplined Bachmann may very well never provide that “gotcha” moment.
The danger for Perry, and for Bachmann for that matter, is that neither knocks out the other. Some die-hard conservatives like him; others prefer her. Both run solid campaigns. And then they split the conservative vote and allow Romney to waltz into the winner’s circle. Unfortunately for Perry and Bachmann, Huntsman poses less of a challenge to Romney (for votes from Main Street Republicans and moderates) than the two of them do to each other. You can image a run of primaries in which Romney gets 30 percent of the vote, Bachmann and Perry get 20 percent each and the remainder goes to the lesser-known and -financed candidates. In short, unless Perry finds a formula for upending Bachmann his path to the nomination will be rocky.
And what about Pawlenty? The former Minnesota governor has his hands full with Bachmann and finding a toehold in a must-do-well Iowa contest. Should yet another social conservative with good organizational skills and a more conservative record than he (Perry certainly never entertained cap-and-trade, for example) enter the race, that may be the end of his campaign.
Perry certainly has a path to the nomination — best Bachmann in Iowa, clear the field of minor candidates and become the consensus not-Romney candidate. More likely than not we’ll get the chance to see how he performs and how, if at all, he maneuvers around Bachmann. One thing is certain: His margin for error is small, and his late entry means every appearance counts.