It could have gone very badly. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is an Iowa native. She’s coming off a big win in Ames. But Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave Iowans a chance to compare the two candidates at the Black Hawk County Lincoln Day Dinner in Waterloo, Iowa.

He spoke without notes and with a broad dynamic range. When he talked in measured tones about his Air Force experience he was making a dual point — he’s seen the world (he rattled off his postings around the globe) and he has military experience. He hit his main themes — jobs and debt. He ticked off the four elements (“simple, guiding principles”) of his success in Texas — “don’t spend all the money”; a tax system as low as possible that still allows the government to provide essential services; regulatory climate that is “fair” and “predictable”; and legal reform. Along the way he wove in a swipe at ObamaCare, using his wife’s experience as a nurse to raise questions about quality of care. He is evolving a positive agenda, rather than simply railing against the incursion of the federal government from the perspective of a governor.

Mainstream and conservative media present pronounced themselves impressed, suggesting he outshined the hometown girl. While Bachmann now is dinged for a “brittle, presidential-style cocoon that has become her campaign’s signature: a routine of late entries, unexplained absences, quick exits, sharp-elbowed handlers with matching lapel pins, and pre-selected questioners,” Perry gets plaudits for “working his way across the room to sit at table after table, shake hand after hand, pose for photographs and listen politely to a windy Abraham Lincoln impersonator, paying respect to a state that expects candidates, no matter their fame, to be accessible.”

In the Q&A portion of the program, Perry took a question on the price of a barrel of oil and turned to a riff on regulation and energy independence. On immigration, he said, “The issue is about border security.” He didn’t throw out red meat; he talked about the problem as a security issue. “You can’t even have a conversation about an immigration policy unless you first secure the border.” (He carefully avoided any anti-immigrant fervor while showing his familiarity with a national security issue.) We need to have an “adult conversation” about a transition to a new type of entitlement system, he told the crowd. He talked about protecting, not dismantling, Social Security.

He’s showing off his political skills, with an eye not on his opponents, but on setting up a compelling contrast with President Obama. The White House is inadvertently making it easy.

In a New York Times report, the extent of the White House’s disarray was evident:

As the economy worsens, President Obama and his senior aides are considering whether to adopt a more combative approach on economic issues, seeking to highlight substantive differences with Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail rather than continuing to pursue elusive compromises, advisers to the president say. . . . But others, including Gene Sperling, Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, say public anger over the debt ceiling debate has weakened Republicans and created an opening for bigger ideas like tax incentives for businesses that hire more workers, according to Congressional Democrats who share that view. Democrats are also pushing the White House to help homeowners facing foreclosure. Even if the ideas cannot pass Congress, they say, the president would gain a campaign issue by pushing for them. . . .

The administration may also merge the Department of Commerce, the Office of the United States Trade Representative and some economic divisions at the State Department into a new agency, administration officials said. Possible names include the Department of Jobs or the Department of Competitiveness.

Perry spokesman Mark Miner’s response to that was blunt: “Thinking he can hide his dismal record on the economy and job creation by renaming a few federal agencies shows just how out of touch President Obama is with the people of America.”

Perry is aided by comparison to one candidate who is light on specific policy solutions (although beloved by the Tea Partyers) and another who is viewed with suspicion by the hardcore base (although possessing private-sector experience the others lack). Perry’s message is a winning one in a Republican electorate; he’s now got to convince voters he is the right messenger.