New CNN poll taken over the weekend shows that Texas Gov. Rick Perry has maintained his commanding lead in the GOP field — this after many pundits, including conservatives, dinged Perry for having had a supposedly bad debate last week.
Like Your Working Boy said, Perry won that debate. No question, he was not as smooth as Romney, but it clearly didn’t hurt him. East Coast pundits really need to get over the idea that Perry’s views on the science of climate change and evolution will hurt him — not in a country in which very large numbers of people share Perry’s skepticism. Mind you, I’m not endorsing Perry’s positions, only saying that “science” is one of those culture-war issues that gets elites (both liberal and conservative) worked up, but that mean very little to most people. Whether it should matter more is another question. While I disagree with Perry on these particular points, I do think it’s generally a healthy instinct that people are skeptical of what science says, insofar as technocratic elites have a penchant for appealing to scientism (versus science) to justify liberal policy preferences (e.g., embryonic stem-cell research). But I digress.
Nor did the supposed Social Security gaffe hurt Perry — at least it hasn’t yet. Why not? A couple of reasons, I think. The lesser reason is that people may not agree with him on Social Security, but they appreciate his willingness to stake out a risky position on the issue (and, truth to tell, they may well be confident that he won’t be able to do squat about it). I think the far more likely reason is that Cowboy Rick looks exactly like the kind of guy who is going to take the fight to Obama, and take it to him hard.
I think this is a misjudgment. If the economy is bad next fall, people will be looking for a reason to vote against Obama. Reasonable, pinstriped Romney will come across as a safe choice for many independent voters. It will be very, very easy for Team Obama to make Perry look like Yosemite Sam. Nevertheless, if Romney can’t take some flesh out of Perry’s hide in tonight’s debate, GOP primary voters are going to have their doubts that he’s got what it takes to go up against Obama solidified. Ross Douthat said something smart after last week’s GOP debate:
For all his fumblings and non-answers on questions ranging from health insurance to climate change, he was a commanding presence on the stage last night, and his air of right-wing bravado pretty much guarantees him more ardent fans than Romney’s attempt to project competence and electability while walking a policy tightrope.
Winning ardent fans is not the same thing as winning votes, and I have always assumed (on good evidence, I think) that the swath of the conservative movement that values bravado above all — the Rush Limbaugh/Erick Erickson faction, you might say — isn’t large enough to swing a primary campaign, let alone a general election. But now we’re conducting an experiment that will put my assumptions, and theirs, to a very direct sort of test. Based on last night’s performance, Rick Perry intends to run as exactly the kind of presidential candidate that many leading conservatives insist that the country wants and needs. In four months time, we’ll begin to find out if they’re right.