Beth Reinhard sums up the new conventional wisdom on the 2012 race:

The Romney-Perry showdown seemed unlikely months ago, but came to the fore in recent weeks as Pawlenty continued to fizzle and Perry lined up donors and strategists. Pawlenty’s exit on Sunday and Perry’s announcement on Saturday just made the two-man race official. Bachmann defeated Pawlenty because she managed to make him look weak, a feat she is unlikely to engineer with the swaggering three-term governor of Texas.

If the “two-man race” became official on Saturday, it must have been a one-man race before that, because Pawlenty was never in any danger of competing with Romney. Pawlenty was anointed the acceptable anti-Romney by journalists and pundits, and on paper the argument made a certain amount of sense, but it was never based on any significant support in terms of funding or popularity. Perry is already positioned to do better than Pawlenty in both, but the rush to make Perry the natural alternative to Romney and to declare it a “two-man race” is much the same as the premature elevation of Pawlenty as one of the main contenders.

The meme that it was Pawlenty’s appearance of weakness that doomed him would be poetic justice if it were true. He repeated incessantly how important it is to project strength to ward off aggression from other states, and he has been roundly derided for failing to project strength against Michele Bachmann, but this is too easy of an answer. There is some truth to the claim that Pawlenty was insufficiently combative when he needed to be, and he was arguably too combative when he shouldn’t have been, and he often picked fights with the wrong people. His handling of questions on military spending before a generally friendly audience at the Cato Institute was a clue that he didn’t understand the current political landscape. His full-throated attack on “decline” and “isolationism” at the Council on Foreign Relations not only identified him with the deeply discredited foreign policy views of the first George W. Bush term, but it reinforced the impression that Pawlenty was very concerned with what party elites thought of him and not attentive enough to what voters were thinking. On paper, Pawlenty seemed to be what the GOP needed and wanted, but the assumptions going into this speculation were mistaken.

Doug Mataconis compares Perry and Bachmann on paper (via Andrew):

Nonetheless, just looking at these two candidates on paper there really doesn’t seem to be any comparison. Perry has served in Executive positions (Agriculture Commissoiner, Lt. Governer, Governor) for twenty years. Bachmann has been a Congresswoman from a central Minnesota Congressional District since 2006, and before that served in the Minnesota State Senate for six years. During her time in Congress, she has no significant legislative accomplishments to put on her resume, and has essentially earned her reputation and a backbbench bomb thrower. If you’re a voter in Iowa looking for a conservative who is actually qualified to sit in the Oval Office, the choice is rather obvious I think.

To be blunt, when was the last time in an open nominating contest that the Republican primary electorate selected someone actually qualified for the job? It could well be that Perry displaces Bachmann in the same way that she displaced Pawlenty, and we will then realize that her candidacy functioned as a placeholder until a more electable anti-Romney conservative could be found. Even so, it seems to me that it is not going to be her lack of qualifications or lack of legislative achievements that is going to be her undoing. If qualifications and achievements were what Bachmann’s supporters were interested in, they would be supporting other candidates. As Mataconis and others have already noted, she has started building a celebrity cocoon around herself, and that could prove disastrous for her in both Iowa and New Hampshire. It is this distance from voters and the perceived sense of entitlement that goes with it that could sink her.

Looking at Perry on paper, the same flaws that made a Perry presidential bid seem implausible six months ago are still there. In addition to the vulnerabilities Mataconis lists here, it is hard to forget that everyone assumed until very recently that any governor of Texas would be weighed down by the legacy of the last President from Texas. Perry boosters like to emphasize his personal rivalry with Bush, and in terms of some of his domestic policy views he could plausibly present himself as the anti-Bush, but as a political matter the GOP doesn’t want a potential nominee to conjure up associations with the party during the Bush years. What they certainly don’t want is a candidate who has said repeatedly that he believes George W. Bush will be judged to have been “an incredibly good” President.

Note that he didn’t say that Bush did some things right, or that he agreed with many of Bush’s decisions, which would have been a reasonable answer for a committed partisan, but that he thinks he will be seen as “incredibly good.” That is such a bizarre judgment and one so wildly out of step with the vast majority of Americans, including a significant bloc of Republicans, and the fact that Perry still holds that view should serve as fair warning that he should not be entrusted with the Presidency. Taken together with the strong similarities between Perry’s foreign policy and that of the previous administration, Perry’s assessment of the Bush Presidency tells us why he must not become the nominee.

In the end, the Bachmann-Perry contest is probably a competition to decide who will end up losing to Romney. What is most likely to happen is that Bachmann and Perry will compete with one another as Huckabee and Romney did in 2008, and by splitting the anti-Romney vote they will allow Romney to capture the nomination in the same way McCain did by eking out a number of victories in the early states. Perry will be very strong in Southern primaries, but outside the South his appeal may be as limited as Huckabee’s was last time.