A few days ago, Democrats were quietly praying for Rick Perry — the instant Republican frontrunner who, they assumed with mounting evidence, would prove to be a fading nag of a GOP nominee coming around the final turn to November 2012. Gallup showed Perry losing nationally to Obama by five points, with Mitt Romney ahead by two. Surveys showed Romney stronger in battleground states from Pennsylvania to Perry's presumed southern base in Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. (The presumption is a demographics-defying caricature in any case: States in the new south don't necessarily see themselves cast in the image and likeness of Texas.)
The GOP establishment was reading the numbers, too. What Democrats were happily anticipating, sensible Republican strategists like Karl Rove were openly dreading. But they might have to live with the Perry risk. Among tea-drenched Republican primary voters — who in 2010 sacrificed the possibility of controlling the Senate in favor of backing unelectable, sometimes unhinged candidates — a seven-point gap in how Romney and Perry fared against Obama seemed unlikely to constitute a convincing electability argument. Perry, after all, looked — literally looked — like a more serious figure than fringe personalities such as Sharron Angle, whose hapless implausibility saved Harry Reid's Senate seat last year in Nevada, or Christine O'Donnell, who advertised in Delaware that she was not a witch.
Rick Perry's supporters have to wonder if their candidate is already too wounded, too indelibly branded, to come back.
Then, as summer turned to autumn, came two stunning events that stripped the spin from Perry — and positioned him as probably a one-month wonder, a man who could not last the political seasons. First, Republicans not only got another look at the Texas governor, but heard him as he huffed and puffed and blew himself down in the latest debate. He sounded incoherent and wholly uninformed; he launched a prepared tongue lashing of Romney as a flip-flopper that instead lacerated Perry himself. What was this guy trying to say as he biffed and farbled his way through a script that he should have had down cold? And one of the few moments when Perry spoke a simulacrum of the English language, he defended college access for the children of illegal immigrants — and offended the nativist base of his party by saying that the opponents of that policy don't "have a heart." He was right for once, but decidedly not far-right; and as the Florida straw poll neared two days later, observers suggested that his margin of likely victory would shrink.
Even that was not to be. Perry spent and spent on the straw poll — only to be beaten two to one by former pizza magnate Herman Cain. One Republican privately worried that the party is losing its mind. It has certainly lost its swooning infatuation with the candidate who is so conspicuously not ready for prime time. If I'm off the mark, and Perry's lead over Romney holds after the Texan's week of woe, Romney is in deep trouble, facing an implacable wall of resistance — and Democrats may yet receive an answered prayer in the form of Perry as the GOP's "best man" to run against.
The better bet is that the contracting circle of Perry supporters will pray fervently for the resurrection of a candidate who conflates his politics with divine providence. But barring heaven's intervention, and heaven will wait on this one, Perry won't prevail unless GOP primary goers are irredeemably addled — or unless he's swiftly born again as a passably competent candidate who, whichever of the prevailing Republican fantasies he's spouting, gives the impression that he knows, sort of, what he's talking about. He'd also have to sound as if he wouldn't be befuddled by a nuclear crisis.
Perry's advocates offer the rationalization that, well, he's no worse a debater then George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. That's plainly ridiculous. Bush had substance, if not syntax. And in debates where it counted, Reagan was a master of the decisive one-liner. "I paid for this microphone," he thundered as he took command in 1980 in New Hampshire. "There you go again," he said with a smile, administering the coup de grace — so gracefully — to Jimmy Carter. Four years later, Reagan reversed the sense that he was too old, perhaps out of it, by blithely glancing across the stage at Democratic nominee Walter Mondale and pledging "not...to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
In the absence of a Perry who's actually a little more like Reagan, or even Bush, this Texan's most significant contribution in 2012 may be to make Romney seem relatively reasonable, conceivably presidential, a candidate who, behind the shifting masks of his persona, conveys emanations of moderation. Romney can't do this overtly until he is nominated, or he won't be. But he doesn't have to if Perry's malaprop presence does it for him. In that sense, Perry, who debuted as a mortal threat to the once and now future frontrunner, could be an answer to Romney's prayer: How does he placate the hard-line conservatives without repelling mainstream and independent voters who will pick the next president?
The irony here is that while the contrast between the two men is mostly image, the difference is largely performance. On the big issues, Romney is Perry — except for the shape-shifting candidate's shameless anti-immigrant pandering.
The most obvious example is Social Security, where the bumbling Perry can't get his rebuttal through. In his recent book, he called the program "a Ponzi scheme," unconstitutional, something to slough off to state governments. But in his own book, and on the campaign trail, Romney is more modulated, but hardly less hostile. He's called for privatizing Social Security and likened it to a criminal enterprise where people "go to jail." Perry's expostulations are, as Rove worries, "toxic" in a general election. But by the time the Obama campaign gets through with them, Romney's view will be poisonous, too.
And let's not stop there. On the economy, Romney marches in lock step with the Republicans' hardest-liners — for the "cut, cap, and balance" plan, which would shred the social safety net and drive every downturn toward depression. On social issues, he's a Perry clone — against a woman's right to choose, stem-cell research, and gay rights — all of which he insistently claimed to favor for a decade in Massachusetts. Moreover, the immigrant-bashing Romney certainly would take fewer Hispanic voters than Perry — and Republicans plainly can't reach the White House without 40 percent of the Hispanic electorate.
So Democrats may have prayed for Perry, but they can and will go after Romney on all of this — and on his record of destroying jobs as he bought up, downsized, and dismantled companies in the private sector.
As I have noted before, a Romney friend told me that he doesn't mean a lot of what he's saying. But that shouldn't put anyone at ease: Romney may merely be "saying anything" to secure the nomination; but as president, he would have to do much of it, or be challenged for renomination. His friend's apologia also suggests that one of Romney's greatest weaknesses — his self-evident insincerity — should be regarded as a saving grace; that as a handsome Richard Nixon, Americans could rely on him to temporize and trade away professed beliefs.
That's what makes his situation so tricky. Conservatives suspect that he is a chameleon — in record and character he is — and they simply don't trust him. "Yikes," exclaimed the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol after the Republican debate last week; disdainful of Perry, distressed by Romney, Kristol renewed the call for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to enter the race.
The call is reverberating across the echo-chamber of the Romney-wary right. Christie's Tuesday speech at the Reagan Library will stoke or dampen the speculation. He may understand, as the Perry case proves, that a late-blooming candidacy can be better in anticipation than in reality. (It's doubtful that Christie, who's sharply broken with the moderate course of previous Republican governors of New Jersey, could carry his own state against Obama.)
Maybe hoping for Christie reflects a yearning for a GOP hopeful who hasn't written a half-crazy book before announcing for president. But assuming he stays out, assuming Perry continues to strike out, then Romney will march on to grudging, sometimes sullen acceptance as the GOP nominee. He will be the classic "remainder man" — the one who wins because all the others, from Tim Pawlenty to Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry, falter and fail. In short, Romney will then be the "man who" because who else have they got?
I thought Perry — and I'd surely welcome his nomination — would be strong in the primaries, a favorite because of his resources, the restlessness with Romney, and the Texas governor's simultaneous capacity to appeal to the Tea Party and unite the Republican Party. I was wrong. I should have listened to the Texans who counted their governor as slightly dense and more than slightly debate-impaired.
Now Perry will soldier or stumble on. His supporters have to wonder if their candidate is already too wounded, too indelibly branded, to come back. In diminishing numbers, they are getting ready to trek to the next debate. And yes, they're praying. They may not understand something my wonderful, witty mother-in-law, Elinor Oates, the lone Republican in our family, often said: "All prayers are answered. And no is as much an answer as yes."