Michele Bachmann wins, and the GOP presidential campaign kicks into a new phase.
Those vote totals are small compared to the votes Paul and Bachmann got, but no sign can be too small for insiders trying to figure out how Rick Perry changes the alignment in the Republican race. Perry is considered a strong candidate because he can raise money, and because he combines Tea Party appeal with prospects among the GOP establishment. A veteran of New Hampshire politics says that the party officials and insiders who are anxious to jump to Perry are not Tea Party types but Republicans who backed George W. Bush and his father.
Perry is "the complete picture," to repeat the cliché I've heard from insiders too many times. But is he really? This takes us back to the tension within the Republican Party. Perry may be a great primary candidate, but will he be a good general election candidate? That is the key issue Romney will raise for the next several months. Romney will argue that Perry is too Tea Party to win in a general election. Also, is the country ready for another Texas governor? Perry may be very different from George Bush. Their camps dislike each other, but when he talks, the echoes of our most unpopular recent president abound.
But before Perry can get to the general election, he will face a series of challenges. The first is that he is a vessel for voter expectations. He's everything to everyone. That can lead to disappointment if the reality doesn't live up to the dream. When I asked the New Hampshire veteran what quality of Perry's had people rushing to him, he said, "That's the funny thing, they don't know much about him."
In September, there will be three GOP debates—three chances for Perry to look less than advertised. Reporters will start looking at his Texas record and his dealings in the back-room world of Texas politics. He'll have to respond to these stories on the national level for the first time with less time to recover than if he'd started his campaign earlier. And he'll have to learn how to adjust his considerable talents as a Texas politician to the small rooms of Iowa and New Hampshire, which require a different touch. He'll start in Iowa Sunday with a stop at the Iowa state fair, where his opponents spent the week being wowed by this year's culinary delight: fried butter. Old hat for Perry. They served that at the Texas state fair two years ago.
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