When the implosion of the Gingrich campaign freed up key former aides to Rick Perry, chatter in the pundit class immediately focused on the possibility of the Texas governor’s running. It initially seemed like inside-baseball talk run amok, but soon enough came word that Perry was seriously thinking about it, reports of his meeting with outside policy experts, and then this weekend — the announcement.
There are two schools of thought on Perry. One says his strength on the cusp of his announcement mostly had to do with his being a relative unknown and not yet in the race. Others see a truly formidable candidacy in the making — one that can steal establishment support from Mitt Romney and compete with Michele Bachmann for tea-party and evangelical voters, all while touting a record of accomplishment more impressive than any of the other candidates’.
It surely is some of both. Perry hasn’t yet had a campaign flub, nor had to endure the constant scrutiny of the campaign trail. It’s easy for people to project whatever they want onto him. But he starts off from a position of strength. He gets an automatic entrée into the top tier and an excellent chance to become Romney’s chief competitor, if not himself the frontrunner. Besides Bachmann, he’s the only current officeholder among the top candidates. There’s no arguing with his experience as governor the last ten years of one of the country’s most populous and economically dynamic states. He has a natural narrative as the outsider who has succeeded in addressing the nation’s foremost problem — jobs — by rejecting the nostrums popular in Washington today. He’s a down-the-line conservative with a no-holds-barred combativeness when both substantive purity and a hard-line affect are highly prized by the party’s grassroots.
He must be taken seriously. Whether he gets the nomination will depend in part on these five questions:
1. Can he win Iowa?
Perry obviously would have enormous strengths in the South and especially in the crucial South Carolina primary. But he has to get there first, which probably means winning in Iowa. New Hampshire isn’t typically happy hunting grounds for southern evangelicals — witness the humbling of George W. Bush in the 2000 primary and Mike Huckabee’s distant third-place finish in 2008. In theory, perhaps Perry could finish second in Iowa and second in New Hampshire and still retain significant support going into South Carolina, but Mitt Romney proved in 2008 that boasting of “silver medals” doesn’t count for much. Especially given the large expectations for Perry, anything but first in Iowa would be a blow.
That means Perry will have to beat Bachmann, and will have to beat Romney if the latter chooses to make a big play in the caucuses. With her victory in the straw poll over the weekend, Bachmann has a significant head start. She has about 5,000 people who are already, in some sense, invested in her campaign. Bachmann has been consistently underestimated. She destroyed Tim Pawlenty, a candidate who seemed much stronger on paper. Perry has a couple advantages over Pawlenty, though: 1) He has more time. Pawlenty felt he had to take down Bachmann within a matter of weeks this summer, and it didn’t work. Perry can hope gravity eventually drags her back down to earth over the next six months. 2) He is not bringing to bear a softer-sell conservatism. He presumably can match both Bachmann’s full-throated conservatism and her spirited presentation.
Logic says that Perry will eclipse Bachmann in Iowa because he’s as conservative but with the bonus of extensive executive experience. As a fiscal and social conservative who’s an evangelical with a background in agriculture, Perry seems a natural fit for the state. But we still don’t know if he can establish the kind of connection Bachmann has forged with Iowa voters early on. And he’s getting a late start in a process that famously depends on organization. “In a short amount of time,” says Chuck Laudner, a former director of the Iowa GOP, “Perry will have to be perfect. In such a short time frame, it’s hard to do all the spadework the caucuses require.” But Perry has no choice but to do it: Iowa is crucial for him.