Perry campaign catches fire in first week

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has caught fire with Republicans, commanding the attention of primary voters in the first week of his campaign.

Perry has firmly established himself as a top-tier candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, positioning himself as the best combination of his two main rivals, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.).

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By boasting of his state’s record on creating jobs, Perry can match Romney’s talk on the economy, the central issue in the presidential race so far. Yet he also excites grassroots conservatives like Bachmann, something Romney has sometimes struggled to do.

Perry “fills this big empty spot” in the race, said American for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who says he is neutral in the contest.

“I would say it's a very, very good week for him,” said Frank Donatelli, the chairman of the Republican group GOPAC.

Perry has quickly captured the attention of rank-and-file Republicans who had expressed low enthusiasm for the existing pool of candidates, said Donatelli.

“I can tell you there's very high interest in Perry's candidacy,” boasted Donatelli. “In my discussions with Republicans around the country, almost to a man and woman, they tell you that there's interest in his candidacy.”

Perry’s allies also exude optimism after a week they view as nothing less than stellar. Some even compare the Texan’s nascent campaign to the first months of Ronald Reagan’s bid for the GOP nomination more than 30 years ago.

“The last instance I saw excitement of this kind was in 1979 when I was a college graduate,” said Katon Dawson, the head of Perry's campaign in South Carolina. “I see more excitement for Perry than I did for Bush in 1999.”

Perry’s first week included stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which host the first three contests of the 2012 cycle. The governor showcased a penchant for folksiness and retail politics, along with unbending conservative ideology.

He also boasted of his résumé as governor of one of the nation's largest states, where, since 2000, he's presided over an economy that's outperformed many others amid a tough national recession.

“I think if he doesn't trip on the way in, it's him, Romney and Bachmann,” Norquist explained. “I think Perry's in a great position. He's always spoken to social conservatives by who he is. The economic stuff he can talk about all day, and he doesn't have to throw up flares.”

Perry's quick ascendancy caps an aggressive week of stumping in which he sought to capitalize on anticipation of his candidacy. It's almost a reverse image of the letdown primary voters had when former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), in a ballyhooed debate performance in June, failed to deliver on the healthcare critique of Romney that Pawlenty had voiced just a day before.

A day after Perry entered the race, Pawlenty made his exit.

"He does have the credentials on what's the greatest concern: jobs," Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), a former supporter of Pawlenty's, said of Perry. The Texas governor, Wilson said, already has one of the best ground organizations in the Palmetto State.

Perry’s record on jobs and the economy are the most consistent part of his stump speech. “I know how to create jobs,” he said Monday in Iowa.

But he’s also shored up his conservative bona fides by questioning climate change science and hedging on whether creationism should be taught in schools.

To be sure, there have been some slips.

Perry’s shoot-from-the-hip style led him to a misstep when he suggested that if Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke were to take steps to expand the U.S. money supply, it would be “almost treasonous.”

Bush administration officials slammed Perry for the comment, with strategist Karl Rove calling it “unpresidential.”

In addition, Perry was forced to backtrack on a controversial law he signed mandating that girls entering the sixth grade in Texas be vaccinated against the Human papillomavirus (HPV), which puts women at risk for cervical cancer. The law smacked of the kind of top-down mandate conservatives have decried in Romney's healthcare law, and Perry's close ties to Merck, the manufacturer of the vaccine, has raised eyebrows since he signed the law in 2007.

Whispers that the GOP field still needs another candidate have yet to go quiet either, suggesting some still think the best candidate to take on Obama has yet to enter the race.

Still, Perry’s strong first week suggests those candidates will need to make their decisions quickly for fear of being left in the dust.

Perry’s comments about Bernanke could help him in the primary season, and Perry sought to turn them into an advantage by almost relishing the “lecture” he said he got from Obama, who cautioned the Texas governor to be more careful with his words.

They also underscore the balance Perry has pursued between the primary and general electorate.

Romney might be the most electable candidate in the general election thus far — he fares best against the president in head-to-head polls — but he faces skepticism from primary voters; Perry’s task is running to Romney's right to capture a primary victory, without alienating independents and centrist Republicans he'd need to win against Obama.

“They're both former governors, and I personally think the country needs a former governor or current governor,” said John Sununu, the former Republican governor and party chairman in New Hampshire, where both Romney and Perry campaigned this week.

Sununu saw both in action this week, and said Romney played up his experience in the private sector — the part of his background the former Massachusetts governor is using to distinguish himself from Perry — while the Texan had “a little stronger flavor on the social issues.”

Dawson said Perry has an opening because Romney “seems to be vacant from the playing field.”

The front-runner to date, Romney set a later pace for the launch of the 2012 season, and has consciously avoided an aggressive summer schedule. In addition, Bachmann, a third-term congresswoman, is “untested” so far, said Dawson.

Romney, Bachmann and Perry are now the Big Three, but some think the race could end in a showdown become the Big Two — Perry and Romney.

“There's a possibility that Bachmann's the flavor of the month,” Norquist said. “I would be less surprised to see her drop in the polls over the next few weeks, months, than I would Perry or Romney.”


—This story was updated at 9:39 a.m.