Like much of his career, Rick Perry’s entry into the presidential campaign was exceptionally well-timed. Announcing the very day that his main rival for the “electable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney” mantle, Tim Pawlenty, was driven from the race by a poor third-place showing at the Iowa Straw Poll, the Texan has a lot of open political space to occupy. As a result, some political observers are already depicting the nomination battle as a one-on-one Romney versus Perry battle, aligning Republican presidential politics along the Boston/Austin axis that has so much resonance in Democratic history. That’s not surprising: Many media (and Republican) elites have long held Bachmann in low regard as a noisy zealot; others are eager to brush aside the cultural and fiscal fanaticism she is thought to represent and get on with a GOP presidential contest centered on the economic issues assumed to be the incumbent’s Achilles heel. But it’s a long way to the next big event of the presidential cycle—the actual Iowa Caucuses, currently scheduled for February—and, barring some self-destructive gaffe or an unlikely plunge to Pawlentyland in the polls, Bachmann is not going away anytime soon.
Following an initial love-fest, Rick Perry is about to undergo the kind of heightened scrutiny that’s already afflicting Bachmann. The centerpiece of his campaign message, the Texas Economic Miracle, is already coming into question in the media, and will be challenged, however indirectly, by his GOP rivals. Eventually, someone will draw attention to the fact that if Perry’s low-tax, low-services, corporate-subsidizing policies really were an economic cure-all, similar conditions should have made states like Alabama and Mississippi world-beating dynamos years ago. He will also have to answer for past actions that have annoyed conservatives mightily, from his long-time advocacy of a state-level version of the DREAM Act, to his 2007 demand for inoculation of every female teenager with a vaccine against the HPV virus, to his 2008 championship of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid, as well as his very recent flip-flops on gay marriage and abortion.
Bachmann, meanwhile, is no Ron Paul. She has none of the heresies to “movement conservative” orthodoxies that Perry has committed. Nor is she simply a close and valued friend to the Christian Right and the Tea Party movement like Perry is: She is “one of us,” to an extraordinary extent. And, as she has so often told Iowans, she is a native of that state. No matter how well past southern-fried candidates with Christian Right backing have done in the Caucuses, if everything else is equal, Iowa conservatives would prefer their champion being someone who understands how to dig a car out of a snow drift and how to follow a hockey game.
Unless Perry decides to concede Iowa to Bachmann (an unlikely scenario), he will have to play some serious catch-up in the state, paying tribute in time-consuming personal attention and consumption of potluck dinners that Iowans demand of every candidate seeking their affection. In that hothouse environment, the risk of gaffes is very high, and it’s too late for Perry to keep expectations low. And if Perry does not set Iowa afire, there’s a good chance that his competition with Bachmann for social conservative activist support will create an opening for Romney to come into the state in search of a knockout blow against the entire field.
Looking beyond the Caucuses, the road ahead looks more daunting for Rick Perry than the hype surrounding his entry might suggest, while the overall state of the race continues to be perilous for Republicans hoping for an early consensus that would provide an extended opportunity for the GOP nominee to unite the party and focus on Barack Obama. Until Perry’s popularity in Iowa can be verified by polls of likely Caucus-goers, the most plausible scenario is a Bachmann win in the Caucuses, followed by Romney victories in Nevada and New Hampshire, and then a Perry breakthrough in South Carolina.
This scenario would take the GOP into uncharted territory, since there’s never been a presidential nominating contest where the first three big states were won by three different candidates, all of them with some level of national support and all of them demonstrably strong fundraisers. It’s the sort of situation where relatively small developments—a gaffe, a strong or poor debate performance, a monomaniacal series of attacks from minor candidates, a failure to meet media expectations—could become very big deals. But barring some major development, an extended nominating contest seems likely; it could have happened in 2008 had John McCain not eked out back-to-back wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and this year the schedule after the early states is significantly more spread out.
To be sure, it’s possible that the Perry hype is justified, and he’ll surge ahead of Bachmann in Iowa and get his one-on-one with Romney. He remains the best-positioned of the three serious contenders as a potential “unity” candidate for a vengeful, conservative-trending party smelling victory and wanting to hide its cultural and fiscal extremism behind a plausible economic success story. But it won’t be a cakewalk, if only because Perry’s not the only candidate feeling a calling to run and win this race.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.