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.
2. Is he “too Texas” to win a general election?
When George W. Bush started his campaign for president in 1999, he famously dubbed himself a “compassionate conservative.” In part he was trying to counter the stereotypes that people have of conservative Christians from Texas. Perry evidently feels no need to soften his image.
Many voters worry that Republicans are too willing to upend the entitlements on which the middle class has come to rely. Perry has mused about getting rid of Medicare and Social Security and letting the states set up their own programs. Many voters suspect that conservative evangelical Christians are intolerant. Perry sponsored a prayer event that did not go out of its way to include Jews or Catholics.
It may be that the voters of 2012 will be so dissatisfied with the economy that Perry can get elected notwithstanding his indifference to these moderate sensibilities and views. It may even be that voters have become so alarmed by the growth of the federal government and the unwillingness of elected officials to rein it in that they will find Perry’s refusal to modify his conservatism refreshing.
But it may also be that Republican primary voters will desperately want to defeat Obama and will conclude that Romney is a better bet than Perry.
3. Will being a career politician hurt Perry?
According to Politico, one of the lines of attack Governor Romney’s campaign will use against Perry is that the former is a businessman while the latter has spent his life in politics. The idea seems to be to exploit both the Republican preference for the private sector over “public service” and the general public’s disdain for politicians.
Perry has been in politics a long time. He is the nation’s longest-serving governor. Yet we doubt that this criticism will hurt Perry. For one thing, his record as governor will strike most conservatives as pretty good — and better than Governor Romney’s.
For another, while Governor Romney is known as a successful businessman, he is even better known as a guy who has been running for president for five years. For most Republicans around the country, Perry will be the fresher face. The things people often dislike about politicians — flip-flops and slickness — are things they are more likely to associate with Romney than with Perry. The main trouble with the career-politician attack, thus, may be who’s delivering it. (If Bachmann were Perry’s main rival, it might have bite.) If it works, on the other hand, count on Romney’s campaign to push it relentlessly.
4. Do the Bushies matter?
While Democrats are already treating Perry as a clone of George W. Bush — or at least the Bush of their imaginations — Republican insiders have long known of the tension and occasional hostility between the two men’s advisers. (The extent to which the principals share the feelings of their subordinates is unclear.) One Texas Republican with friends in both camps says that the Bush loyalists think of Perry and his people as “hicks from the sticks,” while the Perryites think the Bush crew got swelled heads when they moved to Washington, D.C. The Bushies think that Perry owes his success in politics to Bush and is ungrateful. Perry does not appear to agree.
Several Bush hands expressed irritation with Perry for criticizing Bush’s record on spending, and sided with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison when she ran a primary campaign against him in 2010. Their hostility did not matter that year: Perry wiped the floor with Hutchison in the primary. It is possible that fire from the Bush camp — or a string of Romney endorsements by its prominent members — will help Perry portray himself as a clean break from the big-government establishment Republicans of the past.
But there are also plenty of Republicans who have fond feelings for Bush and for many of the leading figures of his administration. A fight with the Bushies, should it materialize, could have other costs for Perry. Large parts of the party establishment are currently neutral between Perry and Romney, but they may not stay that way.
5. How much will immigration hurt?
A Perry strength will be his 190-proof conservative record, but there is at least one blot on it: immigration. Reflecting the close ties of his state to Mexico, Perry is to the left of the center of gravity of the rest of the party on the issue. Most significantly, he signed a Texas version of the DREAM Act back in 2001, allowing foreign-born children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college if they have lived in the state for three years prior to graduating high school. He explained, “We must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom, ‘We don’t care where you come from, but where you are going, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there.’ And that vision must include the children of undocumented workers.” He stood by the law in a recent interview, although he opposes the federal version.
He also opposed the Arizona immigration law. He criticized it on grounds that it would “turn law-enforcement officers into immigration officials,” and said it wouldn’t be right for Texas.
He’s hardly an advocate of open borders, though. He’s been hell on President Obama’s performance enforcing the border and has deployed the state’s own assets, including helicopters, to help police it. The question in the primary campaign is whether immigration has the salience of other issues important to conservatives — say, abortion or taxes. If so, Perry will be hurt by his softer line. If not, no one will much care, given his conservatism on almost everything else. What we can say for sure is that Iowa representative Steve King, a force in caucus politics and a leading immigration hawk, will be all over Perry on this issue.
Perry fans like to point out that their man has never lost a race. Romney, whose path to the nomination has never been in more danger, has to hope that there really is a first time for everything.
— Rich Lowry is editor, and Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor, of National Review.