WASHINGTON — Michele Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday, but Rick Perry very well may have won the weekend.
Perry, the third-term governor of Texas with an All-American back-story and folksy southern drawl, declared his presidential run just as Iowans were voting in Ames. His name wasn’t on the ballot there and he’d yet to make a campaign stop in the state, but 718 Iowans wrote his name in, and he received more votes than the national front-runner, Mitt Romney.
Perry’s fiery conservatism and popular appeal among the right wing of the Republican Party means he’s destined to shake up the Republican nomination race, and analysts say he’s likely to drag support away from Bachmann, the Tea Party favorite from Minnesota who’s used a brand of conservative populism to distinguish herself from the rest of the pack.
The two appeared back-to-back at a fundraiser for the Black Hawk County Republican Party in Waterloo, Iowa, Sunday night. Perry committed to attend the fundraiser before Bachmann, and Judd Saul, a local Tea Party leader, said his addition to the program roused more excitement for the annual fundraiser than anyone ever has.
“A lot more interest has come to our dinner because of Perry,” Saul said Friday. At the same time, “we were all hoping [Bachmann] would have committed ahead of him.”
Polling indicates Perry should be able to take some support away from Bachmann. In July, Public Policy Polling found 57 percent of Perry’s supporters said they’d support Bachmann in a head-to-head contest between Bachmann and Romney, meaning at least some of those voters would have been in Bachmann’s camp before Perry’s entrance into the race.
“[Perry’s] a threat to her base,” said Jim Henson, the director of the Texas Politics Project. “They are vying for a lot of the same votes.”
‘This guy is a barracuda’
In a way, Henson said, Bachmann’s surging success this summer helped indicate to Perry that voters would welcome his run.
Bachmann entered the campaign as the prototypical Tea Party candidate, riding the anti-government sentiment of the right wing of the Republican Party to top tier status in the race.
Perry, meanwhile, used the Tea Party to help beat back a primary challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson in last year’s gubernatorial race, Henson said. Bachmann’s early success indicated the Republicans were willing to support a right-winger in its nomination process, opening the door for Perry to enter.
Henson said the Hutchinson campaign showed one tactic Perry could use in the nomination race: “Define opponents early and clearly, and not relent.” In Texas, he did that by branding Hutchinson “Kay Bailout” for her support of the unpopular bank bailout in 2008. He flew planes carrying that banner over her campaign events and printed “Kay Bailout bucks” to paint her as out of touch with the Republican Party.
In a way, then, Perry’s somewhat of a Tim Pawlenty-plus: he can deliver Bachmann’s message — shrink government and lower taxes — passionately, but also back it up with a record, something opponents say Bachmann is missing. That’s what Pawlenty tried to do, but he wasn’t able to develop a hard enough edge to make the attacks natural.
In a last ditch effort to save his campaign, Pawlenty tried to label Bachmann as nothing more than loud voice with a losing record. But Perry, a vicious campaigner, could attach that label to Bachmann and use his résumé to contrast with her in ways the mild-mannered Pawlenty couldn’t.
“[Perry] becomes a more conservative, more effective version of a successful governor” than Pawlenty, Henson said.
Republican consultant Mike Murphy put it another way on Sunday’s “Meet the Press: “In the primary, you look at Texas, what he did to Kay Bailey Hutchinson, 20 points down. This guy is a barracuda, he’s going to eat her for lunch.”
Iowa, New Hampshire strategies will have to differ
Many analysts suggest the Republican nomination contest will come down to a choice between a firebrand like Bachmann or Perry and a more moderate candidate like Romney, and faced with such a head-to-head choice, most voters will choose the moderate to better appeal to independents in a general election.
That’s the precedent, at least, but, as Henson notes, “it seems like we’re in another election where precedent is of limited value.”
If Perry is to get the party nod, he’ll have to start in Iowa, where he’s already late in courting Republicans ahead of the party caucuses early next year.
Despite his strong early showing at the straw poll, he’ll still face tough questions from voters, Iowa’s Saul said. Many are perturbed by the way he skipped campaigning until after the straw poll.
“Iowans are put off just a hair by it,” Saul said. “The man is going to have to take very tough questions … look them right in their eyes.”
Perry’s strategy in Iowa — appeal to the Bachmann voters — is still clearer than it is in New Hampshire, which hosts the nation’s first presidential primary next February. Polls show New Hampshire Republicans — fiscal conservatives who tend to be more moderate on social issues — tend to favor the more moderate Romney, at least right now.
If the race there becomes one focused on gay marriage, abortion and the like, Romney stands to benefit, said Kevin Smith, the director of Concord-based think-tank Cornerstone Action. But if the candidates keep the focus squarely on the economy — as Romney has done so far — Perry could benefit as New Hampshire voters learn about his conservative gubernatorial record.
Perry’s time as Texas governor is filled with accomplishments both boon and bust for the conservative electorate. Texas has no income tax, and since June 2009, it has accounted for more than 40 percent of the jobs created in the United States. At the same time, Perry relied on federal stimulus money to fill a state budget shortfall, and he’s a former Democrat, even serving as the Texas chairman of Al Gore’s 1988 run for president, which Saul said could be sticking point for some voters.
For now, though, Perry is the newest five-star recruit in the pack of Republicans who want to be president, and voters are anxious to see him in action.
Like the Black Hawk County Republicans, Cornerstone invited Perry to its biggest annual fundraiser, in October, and he accepted well before he announced his candidacy. And like in Iowa, Smith said there’s been a higher demand for tickets than ever before.
“We’ve never really had early ticket sales,” he said. “It’s probably going to be our biggest event ever.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com.