By Niall Stanage - 08/13/11 11:47 AM EDT
The battle for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination will be altered dramatically Saturday when Gov. Rick Perry (Texas) announces he is entering the race.
Perry’s declaration is expected to come in a 1 p.m. speech at the RedState conference in Charleston, S.C.
Once the Texan takes the plunge, former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) will be presented with a conservative challenger who is widely seen as more electable than other tribunes of the right such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), and more charismatic than other alternatives such as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (Minn.).
Also on Saturday, the Ames straw poll in Iowa may deliver a boost to some of the more marginal candidates — or drive them to the brink of withdrawal from the race. (Neither Romney nor Perry are competing in the straw poll.)
And this comes on top of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s decision to turn up at the Iowa State Fair on short notice Friday, reigniting speculation about a potential presidential run.
It all adds up to a serious upshifting of gears in a race that had been overshadowed in recent weeks by the battle over the national debt ceiling and the broader economic tumult.
Perry’s potential to quench the thirst among some GOP activists for a credible alternative to Romney is, some observers say, unparalleled. His vigorously conservative positions on hot-button social issues go hand-in-hand with an impressive economic record in Texas.
His capacity to raise large sums of money and win hard electoral battles further fuels the sense of anticipation.
“Perry is a more credible alternative [to Romney] than someone like Bachmann,” Tom Jensen of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling told The Hill. “There are going to be conservatives who would think, ‘I don’t really like Romney but I just can’t see Bachmann as president’. If it’s Perry, they are going to say: ‘I don’t really like Romney and I can see Perry as president.”
Still, Perry will have plenty of barriers to cross. In particular, it remains to be seen how he will fare under the unremitting scrutiny of a presidential campaign.
Not only will every gaffe be replayed over and over; renewed attention will be paid to previous Perry controversies. There are many, ranging from his now-infamous 2009 suggestion that Texas might consider seceding from the union to an earlier furor when rock musician Ted Nugent played at his 2007 inaugural ball clad in a Confederate-flag T-shirt and with machine guns as props.
Moreover, Perry’s attempts to brandish his record in Texas as an electoral weapon are sure to be contested by political opponents of all stripes. David Axelrod, a senior advisor to President Obama, told CBS’s “Early Show” Friday that the Lone Star State’s strong performance had little to do with the governor’s decisions.
“He’s been the beneficiary down there of the boom in oil prices ... and in increased military spending because of the wars,” Axelrod said.
Still, in an interview the previous evening, Axelrod had acknowledged to MSNBC that Perry “could be a very formidable candidate” — a judgement that is heartily endorsed by some Republican observers.
“I think Perry is more electable than Romney,” Republican strategist Keith Appell told The Hill. “He is better placed to energize the base. He has been in office longer and has more accomplishments to point to. For the conservative grassroots, they can look at his record and say: ‘Perry governed in a conservative way.’ Romney? Not so much.”
This view also goes to the heart of Perry’s dilemma, however: do the very attributes that lend him such appeal to grassroots activists also raise obstacles with centrist voters?
“Every time a Republican comes out of the primary, they have some shifting [toward the center] to do,” said Trey Hardin, a GOP strategist. “It seems he would have to make a larger shift than some others. And would that come across to voters as authentic, or would they just feel they were being pandered to?”
Much will undoubtedly depend on how Perry chooses to frame his candidacy.
“This weekend’s speech is going to be critical because he is going to go through his whole reasoning, and explain how he is going to be positioning himself in relation to the other candidates and how he feels he is going to win,” said Republican pollster David Winston.
To be sure, Perry will have to prove that his candidacy is worthy of the excitement that it is currently generating. Several contenders, including Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Gov. Jon Huntsman (Utah) have seen their campaigns sputter, despite high early expectations.
Some observers contend that, if Perry were to win the GOP nomination, the current occupant of the White House would be celebrating as fervently as the Texan’s backers.
“I think Obama would much rather run against Perry than against Romney,” Tom Jensen said. “If you look at the Midwest and other [electorally important] states — the Ohios, the Pennsylvanias, the New Hampshires, the Iowas — it is possible to see Mitt Romney beating Obama in those places. It is a lot harder to see Rick Perry beating him there.”
Still, one thing’s for sure: Perry’s bid is guaranteed to make the 2012 GOP drama a whole lot more interesting.