Conventional wisdom holds that Rick Perry, last week's inevitable GOP presidential nominee, is now toast. Is that correct? Or will the race offer more surprises in the weeks to come?
I'm betting the latter. No doubt Perry has problems. Many of the GOP's fundraising barons fear that a twangy Sun Belt candidate singing the fundamentalist anthems of the Tea Party cannot win a general election, even against an incumbent as weak as Barack Obama.
Also, Perry's early debate performances have not been inspiring. Like a past-his-prime boxer, he has often seemed confused and strangely passive while the other candidates have pounded on him. Unless the Perry staff is hopelessly incompetent, a secret effort is now under way to try to provide him with the vastly improved arsenal of slippery sidesteps, verbal nose pinches and ear slaps he'll need to do a whole lot better in the next big debate, on Oct. 11.
This is not a minor problem. Another bad debate or two could cripple Perry's major-donor fundraising. If that happens, he will face the same grim accounting that did in Tim Pawlenty: no money=no fuel for a campaign's expensive engine of TV ads, mailers and organizers.
Still, it would be a big mistake to write Perry off. He instinctively understands the pulse of the typical GOP primary voter and how to run effectively against the Establishment both in Washington and inside the Republican Party. And Perry's greatest potential strength is not even of his own making; it is the terrain of the coming Republican primary schedule. This is also former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's greatest weakness.
Although the Republican-primary calendar remains partly in flux, the first three contests are likely to remain Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Today Perry has the advantage in two of those states.
Should Perry win the Iowa caucuses, he would leave Iowa with a powerful shot of momentum. He would then head to New Hampshire, where an eclectic audience of conservative and moderate Republicans, combined with quirky independents, awaits. This isn't easy territory for Perry, but he is not the only one with problems. While Romney has deep support in New Hampshire, he also carries the curse of high expectations. If Perry loses to Romney there by only 3 to 6 percentage points--which is possible, particularly if former Utah governor Jon Huntsman's one-state New Hampshire campaign catches fire at all--such a close second-place finish for Perry would be heralded by political analysts as far better than expected and therefore a sign of weakness for Romney. In the fun-house mirror of presidential primaries, you can actually lose by winning if you fail to win big enough.
At that point, Perry's momentum would only build as the contest moved to South Carolina, where the political terrain strongly favors him. This would set up Perry to surge into the megastate of Florida. As always with Perry, bookies will give even money on a huge, damaging gaffe along the way. But if Perry wins Florida, he will be hard to stop.
Which is why Romney now faces a tough strategic decision about whether to participate in the Iowa caucuses. The temptation is enormous: back-to-back Romney wins in Iowa and New Hampshire might put away Perry's campaign once and for all. An Iowa race split among Perry, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul on the right and Romney virtually alone in the GOP center is a recipe for a Romney victory. That said, the conservative caucuses aren't easy territory for Romney. But a decision to skip Iowa would likely spark a level of buzz for Perry that Romney could well live to regret. My guess is that Romney's advisers are suddenly spending more time thinking about Iowa corn and hog prices than most other people in Boston are.
At this moment of inflection, two people hold the keys to the GOP primaries. First, Sarah Palin: if she enters, Perry will have far more trouble on his right and Romney will become much more likely to enter Iowa to win. The new McClatchy-Marist poll showing Palin only 5 points behind Obama surely has the grizzlies on Team Wasilla humming "Hail to the Chief" and thinking one last time about a surprise entry.
The second is Perry's debate coach. If the governor of Texas cannot dramatically improve his performance in his next showdown with his GOP rivals, he may not even make it to Iowa.
Murphy is a GOP political consultant and writer. He Twitters at murphymike
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