Tomorrow night’s GOP presidential candidates debate at Dartmouth College will be do or die for Rick Perry. What accounts for the Texas governor’s rapid rise and, to date, equally rapid fall? Where does the Republican race go from here?
As noted in last week’s column, two clusters of voters have emerged in the 2011 phase of the Republican presidential contest.
Not so much an ideological divide as one of taste and temperament, one cluster looks like those who backed Ronald Reagan in 1980, the other like those who backed George H.W. Bush. This is not to say that the people are the same. With thirty-one years having passed, most of the actual voters who supported each man are off the scene. And the party is probably more united now on specific issue positions than it was then.
Still, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney captured the Bush cluster early on. The Reagan cluster has been searching for a champion, which is why Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman had her surge. It is not clear that the Reaganesque voters ever saw her as a viable candidate. But even after her weaknesses began to reveal themselves, she served as a good placeholder until someone better emerged.
A month and a half ago, that someone looked like Governor Perry. With deep and spectacularly successful experience as the nation’s longest serving governor in the state that had created nearly half of all the nation’s net new jobs during the current economic downturn, Mr. Perry was a forceful limited-government man with a record of results. What more could the Reagan cluster want?
If the presidency were just a super governorship, the answer would have been “nothing more.” But, even if he doesn’t enter office deeply schooled in foreign affairs, a president must have the steadiness, acuity, and depth of character to handle the country’s national security challenges. The party and the nation will not vote for a man who fails to measure up.
To see what I mean, reflect on presidential elections from, say, 1960. Think of the Republican and Democratic nominees. Set aside the issue positions of each man. Focus on temperament – and ask yourself, which man displayed the better temperament for the job? If you are like me, some of your calls will be very close. But I think you will answer – I know I do — that whenever the call has been reasonably clear, the man with the better temperament, meaning the man you would trust more in a crisis, prevailed.
In his deteriorating performance over his first three presidential debates, Governor Perry raised questions about whether he was too limited a man for office he sought. So since mid-September he has lost half his support in the RealClearPolitics average of all polls. Tomorrow night he has a chance to turn himself around. But it is a last chance. If he fails, the Reagan cluster will write him off. He will be out of the race, even if he doesn’t know it.
The Reagan cluster has already started to look for a new champion, which accounts for the move of businessman Herman Cain to the RealClearPolitics number two spot (though, with less than a percentage point dividing them, he is effectively tied with Governor Perry). Yet other than generals and cabinet officers, all presidents in American history have been previously elected officials — vice presidents, governors, and senators. Mr. Cain is amazingly surefooted for a first-time candidate for any office, much less president. But how likely is it that the party will turn to someone with no government experience – zero — in the middle of a severe economic downturn, a national debt crisis, and a continuing engagement of U.S. troops in fighting overseas?
The stage is set, then, for one of the other candidates to make a big move. Which one?
When polling of the GOP field began nearly a year ago, 22.6 percent of Republicans questioned supported Governor Romney. Today 21.8 percent do. The former governor needs to break into the Reagan cluster, which he has failed to do so far. If his support rises over thirty percent, it will mean he has at last, and he will be the nominee.
Other candidates will be getting a second look, too. Florida’s decision to move its primary to late January has jumbled the primary calendar. But whenever the voting begins, probably in early January now, who’s up and who’s down could look very different than it does today.
Hold on. It’s going to be a bumpy rise.