GOP torn over whether Romney or Perry would best make case against Obama

The entrance of Gov. Rick Perry (R-Texas) into the presidential race has placed many Republicans in a quandary.

The question is simple: Would Perry or former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts be a stronger general-election candidate against President Obama? The answer is the subject of feverish debate — and genuine uncertainty.

The common perception is that Romney would hold more appeal to centrist voters in November 2012 but that he might struggle to energize the conservative base.

Perry, on the other hand, sets activist pulses pounding, but also alarms some mainstream Republicans who fear that his conservatism is too rich for the general public’s palate.

The concern is heightened by Perry’s sometimes bellicose rhetoric, exhibited once again on Monday when he used the words “almost treasonous” to describe the prospect of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke injecting new money into the financial system.

The most notable aspect of the mini-furor was the amount of conservative criticism it engendered. On Twitter, Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman during the George W. Bush administration, called the comment “inappropriate and unpresidential.” Karl Rove, speaking on Fox News, added that Perry had reinforced “the impression that he’s a cowboy from Texas.”

“Gov. Perry would, absolutely, mobilize the very conservative, Tea Party faction,” Cameron Lynch, a Republican consultant, told The Hill. “The question is: At what cost? Do you end up alienating independents?”

Faced with this conundrum, an uncommonly high number of GOP strategists confess that they simply can’t decide who would be better positioned to retake the White House.

One such strategist, Sabrina Schaeffer, said that she would like to see a candidate “who can rally support in an unpolarizing way and can help move the country in a conservative direction without being divisive.”

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So would Schaeffer, also a contributor to The Hill's Pundits Blog, prefer the affable Romney over the more combative Perry?

“I’m not sure,” she replied. While Romney has many attributes, she asserted, “he seems to lack that visceral commitment to conservative principles that his base wants to see.”

Perry can use his record in the Lone Star State as a shield against accusations that he is too divisive to win. He has, after all, never lost an election. Yet some in the GOP worry that there is a very large gulf indeed between triumphs in Texas, which has glowed a particularly crimson shade of Republican red in recent years, and nationwide.

Still, Perry’s strength among the Republican base looks formidable. A new poll released yesterday by Rasmussen Reports posited him as the clear leader in the GOP primary. It gave the Texas governor a double-digit lead as the preference of 29 percent of likely Republican primary voters, over 18 percent for Romney and 13 percent for Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.)

The polling company’s head, Scott Rasmussen, told The Hill that it would be premature “to say that Mitt Romney is in deep trouble — but it is clear that he is no longer the sole front-runner.”

When it comes to selecting a standard-bearer for the general election, Rasmussen added, Republicans might face a choice somewhat akin to that which confronted their opponents in 2008.

“Hillary Clinton was the known commodity. She was not likely to make a major mistake. You knew what you were going to get. Barack Obama had the potential to do much better — or much worse.

“For Republicans in 2012, Mitt Romney is not likely to be a major distraction; he would keep the focus on President Obama,” Rasmussen continued. “Rick Perry could energize people more. But he could also potentially make a bigger mistake.”

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell drew a different comparison with 2008 — one that emphasized Romney’s perceived shortcomings when it comes to nourishing the grassroots.

“It is hard to pinpoint his base,” Thornell said. “With Obama supporters in 2008, everybody knew who made up his base, and the same thing was clear with Hillary Clinton. It seems clear this year for Rick Perry, and for Michele Bachmann. But, for the life of me, I can’t work out who Mitt Romney’s core supporters are.”

For the moment, many Republicans who remain torn between the candidates emphasize that they want to see how Perry takes to the national stage. If he exhibits the same fierce competitiveness and strategic acumen that he has shown in Texas, that would be one thing; if he stumbles, or if skeleton-like rattles begin to emanate from his closet, that would be quite another.

“Gov. Romney has already been placed under a different kind of scrutiny to Gov. Perry,” Karen Floyd, who served as the chairwoman of South Carolina’s Republican Party until her term ended in May, told The Hill. “Gov. Romney has run for president before and so his foibles are a little more known.”

Still, Floyd added, she would be taking her time to size up the options.

“Everything in politics is timing,” she said. “Six months from now it could be completely different.”