In a classic piece of counter-programming, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is declaring his presidential intentions this weekend in South Carolina while the Republican political world is focused on Iowa for Thursday night’s debate and Saturday’s Ames straw poll.
Though that should ensure Perry a prominent piece of the weekend political story, his prospects may be affected more by how the Ames event helps define the GOP field he’s about to join than by his one-upsmanship.
That’s because the winner in Ames, expected to be either Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota or that state’s former governor, Tim Pawlenty, instantly becomes the candidate for Perry to beat in this winter’s Iowa caucuses, the first step of the formal delegate selection process.
In recent weeks, Bachmann has emerged as the leading candidate for support from the GOP’s powerful religious conservative wing, which is especially strong in Iowa and South Carolina — and from which Perry also expects significant backing.
Ironically, his chances of becoming shaky front-runner Mitt Romney’s top GOP rival might well improve if Bachmann wins the Ames straw poll.
Why? Widespread doubts she could ultimately win the nomination.
By contrast, despite Pawlenty’s lackluster campaigning, fundraising problems and lack of a firm political base, many Republican handicappers see him as a more acceptable backup choice if Romney falters as he did four years ago in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary.
To get there, however, Pawlenty needs success this weekend in Ames.
Considering his extensive Iowa campaigning and organizing, his failure to finish first — or perhaps a close second — could be fatal, especially with Perry entering.
Likewise, Bachmann almost certainly needs to win in Ames — and in the caucuses themselves — to sustain her swelling support in Republican polls after a strong performance in June in the first major GOP debate in New Hampshire.
But even if she did, her slim public record, rigid ideology and propensity for self-damaging comments probably still doom her when the race moves to larger states with a broader ideological spectrum of Republicans.
Significantly, she has already dropped behind the still-unannounced Perry in some national GOP polls.
Perry’s strength is combining Bachmann’s strong conservative ideology with the practical governing experience of the three former governors in the race: Romney, Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. Pawlenty might provide that, too, but he remains far less known than the governor of the nation’s second-biggest state.
To be sure, Bachmann and Pawlenty are not the only candidates hoping to make decent showings in Ames. So could two with fervent personal followings, former business executive Herman Cain, Texas Rep. Ron Paul and the most active Iowa campaigner, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But they are not seen today as serious contenders for the nomination.
Four years ago, Romney won the Ames straw poll after an intensive, expensive effort. But he faded in the actual caucuses and has chosen a different strategy this time. He isn’t competing with his more conservative rivals in Ames but will participate in Thursday night’s nationally televised debate and next winter’s caucuses.
Either way, New Hampshire remains the key to Romney’s hopes. It’s also crucial for Huntsman, who is bypassing Iowa.
As for Perry, he is showing intentions of competing in both New Hampshire and Iowa with stops there this weekend. While he better fits the Iowa and South Carolina GOP electorates, he may do well in New Hampshire if the slow-starting Huntsman can drain off enough moderate Republicans and independents from Romney.
But the linchpin of Perry’s candidacy will be South Carolina, the state where aides say he will signal his intention to run Saturday at a conservative bloggers convention. It’s the first Southern test; he’s the main Southern candidate.
And it’s the state every ultimate GOP nominee has won since its first presidential primary in 1980.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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