Texas Gov. Rick Perry has endeared himself to red-meat conservatives. He has a compelling economic record. He has executive experience. And yet in his initial week on the trail, he managed to highlight the biggest argument against his candidacy. As the Wall Street Journal notes:
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the campaign gave Texas Gov. Rick Perry more room to make waves with his entry this month. He rapidly became the leading alternative in the race to front-runner Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, at least in national polling.
But a few missteps by Mr. Perry reminded some in the GOP elite, including Republican donors, of underlying concerns that, strong as his appeal is to conservatives, it might not be broad enough to unseat an incumbent president.
The more vulnerable President Obama becomes, the more desperate Republicans become not fritter away a golden opportunity to retake the White House.
The buzz around Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is the flip side of the criticism of Perry. Many Republicans want Ryan’s “intellectual heft to beat Mr. Obama in debates,” the Journal says; the implication is that Perry won’t hold his own. Ryan has a less bombastic and more accessible style that can attract independent voters; the implication is that Perry will frighten off all but the hard-core Republicans.
The Journal report has this partially right:
The challenge lies in the fact that the ideal contender, even more than normal, has to check two contradictory boxes: He or she has to appeal to the GOP’s energized tea-party and social-conservative wings, while also assuring the party’s elites of the ability to reach out to more moderate swing voters who usually decide general elections.
Actually those boxes are not inherently contradictory; there simply isn’t a candidate presently in the field who is perceived as capable of checking both. But of course, most successful Republican candidates do both things — that is, appeal to the base and forge a center-right coalition. In the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial race, Bob McDonnell did this expertly — winning Democratic-leaning Fairfax County in Northern Virginia while energizing social conservatives familiar with his stance on abortion and other social issues.
The boxes only seem contradictory in the unskilled hands of conservative pols who imagine that the country at large thinks just like the right-wing blogosphere. Whether Ryan or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) enters the race, or whether other candidates can fill that void, remains to be seen. But Republican voters should keep in mind that a right-center coalition is not a luxury; it is essential if they are to recapture the White House.