In his quest to be the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has quickly leapt to the top of the polls — the question is whether he can stay there. History offers plenty of candidates who started strong and rode that initial support all the way to the White House. But it's also littered with cautionary tales of candidates who seemed fated to win, only to fizzle out before election day. Which is Perry's destiny? Here, a list of past candidates whose stories might foretell Perry's future:
1. Barack Obama
"Rick Perry is polling ahead for the same reason Obama eventually won his party's nomination," says Jaime Fuller at The American Prospect. He has captured the heart of his party's base. While Obama's opposition to the Iraq war appealed to the liberal voters who decide Democratic primaries, Tea Partiers and other "passionate partisans" who crave drastic change in the White House find "Ponzi scheme" Perry more attractive than his moderate rival, Mitt Romney. "In a way, it's 2008 all over again."
2. Howard Dean
Perry was indeed looking like the GOP's Obama, until he "fumbled his way through" this week's Tea Party debate and started evoking Howard Dean, says Ross Douthat in The New York Times. Like the former Vermont governor — a centrist who campaigned as an anti-war, blue-state liberal's dream — Perry has set aside his relatively moderate pro-immigration record and "rebranded himself" as the gun-slinging "embodiment of the current right-wing id." The base wants to believe him, but, like Dean, his past could keep him from "making the sale."
3. Barry Goldwater
Perry isn't the first "macho ex–Air Force pilot from the Southwest" to take the GOP by storm, says Avik Royat at National Review. Then-Sen. Barry Goldwater did it in 1964, "articulating the constitutional flaws of the New Deal" in much the same way that Perry now hammers Social Security and Medicare. Of course, Goldwater suffered a stunning defeat to Lyndon Johnson, and we got "New Deal II — the Great Society." Perry will need a pragmatic entitlement reform plan to avoid Goldwater's fate.
4. Bill Clinton
"Perry wouldn't necessarily like the comparison," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, as quoted by the Houston Chronicle "but he may turn out to be the Republican Bill Clinton for '12." Clinton, like Perry, "was a governor and natural politician with a knack for working the crowds." He joined the race late and stirred up "what was seen as a less-than-stirring field." Perhaps more importantly, Clinton, like Perry, "had a laser focus on the economy," which helped put him over the top.
5. Fred Thompson ('08) or Wesley Clark ('04)
Perry isn't the first candidate to sprint out of the gate because voters were disappointed by their options, and craved a savior, says Aaron Blake in The Washington Post. In 2008, Fred Thompson was hailed as the first "true-blue conservative" in the 2008 GOP primary; in 2004, Wesley Clark, a retired general, was the Democrat who knew how to fight a war. But Thompson lacked drive, and Clark lacked experience — only time will tell if Perry can show voters "he's worthy of their support in a way that Clark and Thompson couldn't."