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08.17.11

Rick Perry’s Domino Effect

Every candidate, including Barack Obama, is rethinking the 2012 presidential race after the bombastic debut of the Texas governor. Jill Lawrence on what each contender needs to do now.

Rick Perry is coming on like gangbusters, and that has forced all the other presidential contenders to step up—or at least recalibrate—their march toward the White House.

What seemed a sleep-inducing race for months is suddenly a demolition derby, and even President Obama is being asked about the newest rival for his job. But there are pitfalls for each of the candidates. Here’s what to watch for in the coming weeks.  

Rick Perry: Discipline is the big challenge. Perry needs to stick to his message of Texas as a job-creation juggernaut on his watch. The more he wanders off topic, and talks about his Christian beliefs or indulges his good-ole-boy persona, the harder it will be for him to attract the moderates and independents he’ll need in open primaries such as the one in New Hampshire, and in the general election, if he makes it that far.

Navigating the primary maze while keeping avenues open to broad appeal will take a finesse that Perry has yet to demonstrate as a White House candidate. After just five days on the trail, he had already accused scientists of manipulating climate data and all but accused Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke of treason (a capital offense). The Bernanke remark in particular drew rebukes from fellow Republicans, including rival Rick Santorum. “We don't impeach people—we don't charge people with treason—because we disagree with them on public policy,” Santorum said on CNN.

The lesson, in a nutshell, is that too much Texas tough talk can backfire in a national race. Not that Perry’s swagger should totally disappear—he is who he is, and lots of conservatives love him. But he will need to break out of his self-created caricature as antigovernment cowboy who wants to abolish Social Security and secede from the union (the latter possibly a joke, but would Republicans dismiss it if Obama mentioned it?). With 25 million jobless or underemployed, he may also want to think twice about his vow to make Washington as “inconsequential” in people’s lives as he can.

As Mitt Romney rakes in money, and other major donors consider where to place their bets, Perry is potentially fortunate in having made his unforced Bernanke error so early. He has lots of time to show he can act like a president.

Mitt Romney: Romney has made himself both scarce and bland, a risky combination. That strategy is not going to work much longer, because his frontrunner status is already starting to erode. He’s trailing Perry by double digits in the first national poll since Perry entered the race Saturday. Simply pointing out that Romney has private-sector experience won’t be enough to counter Perry’s record of generating jobs in Texas. Especially when it’s so much better than Romney’s performance as governor of Massachusetts.

As a Mormon who says cross-party friendships are good and global warming is real, Romney was never going to be a favorite of the Tea Party. Given the Tea Party’s sinking popularity with the public, and new evidence that its grassroots are focused on getting more religion into government, look for Romney to preserve that distance. Let Perry, Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum scrap over Tea Party votes. Romney must also take care not to reverse himself on anything at all, lest he revive questions about his trustworthiness.

Romney doesn’t have Perry’s ease on the campaign trail. In fact, it’s sometimes painful to watch his awkward encounters, as in this Boston Globe account of his visit to a firm in Merrimack, N.H.: “As Romney began to leave the company after his hour-long visit, he looked at  Ellen Boss, the girlfriend of the company’s general counsel, Cory Hussey. ‘Nice,’ Romney said as she blushed. ‘Nice choice. Just like me,’ a reference to his wife, Ann.” Sigh. But Romney can’t retreat to op-eds and private events. He needs to stay out there and keep trying to relate. It’ll be good practice for his inevitable confrontation with Perry, likely to happen at a Sept. 12 debate, if not sooner.

Barack Obama: Obama has the toughest to-do list of anyone in either party. It would have been unwise to unload on Republicans this week while he was on a bus tour underwritten by U.S. taxpayers, thus his vague admonitions that “some folks in Congress” are putting party above country. Point-blank tirades would probably be counterproductive at this point anyway, seeing that Obama wants to encourage a grand bargain on debt, taxes, and entitlements and put the economy on a better path.

What seemed a sleep-inducing race for months is suddenly a demolition derby.

But trying to be the level-headed adult in the room clearly isn’t working—Gallup just released a poll showing that a new low of only 26 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling the economy. So he’s now planning to do pretty much the only thing he can do on his own: Reclaim his bully pulpit in a major speech next month detailing new ideas for creating jobs and reducing the nation’s mounting $14.3 trillion debt.

The challenge for this president will be to stay on course; to press Congress every day to pass his program, no matter what else is happening in the world and how hard the GOP tries to divert the conversation to spending cuts. A sustained effort will ensure that Obama gets credit if he prevails. If he doesn’t, at least people will know he fought—and the president can run against the obstructionist GOP.

Michele Bachmann: She’s been carried this far by spunk, charm, antigovernment rhetoric, Christian conservative views, and an insistence that she “gets” the jobs thing because she and her husband started a small business. Now she needs an economic plan, she needs serious donors, and she needs to stop messing up facts. In just the past few days, Bachmann said she went to a family reunion (but she didn't actually go); asked an audience to help her celebrate Elvis Presley’s birthday (except it was the anniversary of his death) and said Americans are worried about "the rise of the Soviet Union" (which hasn't existed since 1991).

Like Perry’s treason faux pas, the missteps reinforce an impression people already have of Bachmann, based on her calling New Hampshire the birthplace of the American Revolution (it was Massachusetts) and the Founding Fathers tireless fighters against slavery (many owned slaves, and the nation’s founding documents did not ban slavery). Also less than reassuring are her reliance on talking points to evade questions and her reach back to an education bill in the Minnesota Legislature when asked about her achievements. 

Bachmann has the political skills to continue to be a force in the nomination race. But if she doesn’t add substance and gravitas to the mix, her support will be limited to a core of religious conservatives, and the Iowa Straw Poll will have been her high-water mark.

Ron Paul: He has the second-toughest job, after Obama. Another 152 votes would have won him the Ames poll, and since that close second-place finish, his allies have been complaining about a lack of media love for Ron Paul. Jon Stewart has labeled him “the 13th floor” of American politics. The problem is, no matter how many people Paul can bus in to straw polls around the country, his mix of positions is so singular that it’s hard to picture him as the GOP nominee.

Paul, an obstetrician, is a mainstream social conservative on issues such as abortion. But he also wants to get rid of the IRS and the Federal Reserve, and immediately bring all U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. He’d also take them out of Japan, Germany, and South Korea. “We’re flat-out broke,” Paul said at the straw poll. “Let them defend our borders. Let them spend the money here. We need a boost in our economy.” To broaden his appeal, he would need to back off and in some cases reverse himself. That does not appear likely.

Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum: They’re in single digits in state and national polls. That needs to change soon, or they’ll be following Tim Pawlenty back into private life.

Gingrich’s wildly rocky campaign rollout and mass loss of staff and donors seem to have doomed him to marginal status. Cain is headed there, with his controversial statements on Muslims and now telling bloggers that impeaching Obama “would be a great thing to do” but, alas, would never fly in Congress. Santorum, who was vying mostly with Bachmann for the religious-conservative vote, has even less of a rationale for his candidacy now that Perry is in.

As for Huntsman, the former ambassador to China, he has multiple messages that he could use—among them the best jobs record of the lot as governor of Utah, the only Republican candidate responsible and independent enough to support the debt deal worked out by House Speaker John Boehner, and the only contender with a deep understanding of China and the global economy. He needs to settle on a theme, summon some dynamism to hammer it home, and do it fast. “His window is rapidly closing,” says Mike Dennehy, a GOP strategist based in Concord, N.H.

Is the field complete? Probably. Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani say they still haven’t made decisions, but they are not laying groundwork for bids. There’s been a seemingly unquenchable yearning for Chris Christie, and on Wednesday there was a flurry of excitement when journalist Jonathan Alter reported sources saying that Christie focus groups were under way in Iowa. But 20 minutes later he tweeted that other sources he trusted more insisted there were no focus groups. And shortly after that, Fitch downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating from AA to AA-. The Business Insider headline on the news: “Chris Christie For President Is DOA.” Someone is going to win the right to challenge Obama, and that person, in all probability, is already running.