To most Democrats, Texas Governor Rick Perry's candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination has so far seemed somewhat of a joke. At least until now, that is. The Lefty blogosphere has indeed been having a field day ever since Perry announced, over some of Perry's off-the-cuff comments, both past and present. Today's news, however, should go a long way towards forcing Democrats to start taking Perry seriously -- because according to multiple opinion polls (the first national polls released after Perry jumped in the race), Mitt Romney is no longer the "frontrunner." Perry is. By double-digits. [Poll data is available from both Real Clear Politics and the Huffington Post, if you're interested.]
This should force pundits across the political spectrum to re-evaluate Rick Perry's campaign. Instead of seeing through the lens of: "what my circle of friends thinks of Rick Perry's gaffes," this time the pundits should focus a little more closely on: "what Republican primary voters think of Rick Perry as a candidate." Because, so far, they seem to be flocking to support Perry -- to the visible detriment of Mitt Romney's standing in the polls.
The lesson Democrats never seem to learn is that what they look for in a presidential candidate is just not the same as what Republican primary voters look for. While Democrats were filled with mirth over Perry's comments (on all sorts of subjects) in the past few weeks, they didn't notice that not many people over in the Republican base were laughing. "How can a person be taken seriously as a presidential candidate who says/believes X?" was the refrain from the Left, while over on the Right, many voters were actually just fine with Perry's comments. Perhaps checking some opinion polling among the American public at large, on the subjects of evolution and global warming (for instance) might help.
Of course, this all may be a momentary bump for Perry. He's the newest candidate on the Republican scene, and we've had quite a few of these "flavor of the month" poll bumps already this year. Perhaps his numbers will fade, and Mitt Romney will once again re-emerge as the one leading the pack of contenders. Then again, perhaps not. About the only sure bet right now is to lay money on Romney soon emerging from his self-imposed shell, and start actually campaigning in the next few weeks.
Those who knew Perry in Texas have said all along that he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Republican race. Today, people are beginning to give this opinion a bit more weight. Not only has Perry won every political race he's ever run in, he is also from the largest state in the Republican electoral firmament, and he commands a base of wealthy fundraisers the other Republican candidates must envy. Being from Texas might give pause to independent voters in the general election, but it is a major plus for Perry in terms of fundraising and in terms of being the favorite throughout the entire South during primary season.
Perry could easily win two of the first four primary races -- Iowa and South Carolina. He's probably not going to do as well in New Hampshire, but he may be the favorite heading into Florida. From Super Tuesday on, it's hard not to see how Perry could cut a path to victory.
Perry's biggest drawback is that he does make some Republicans nervous. Some of these Republicans are quite powerful, either behind the scenes in the party machinery or out in public in the Republican commentariat. They may all wind up biting the bullet and falling in behind Romney before this whole thing is over. The real test is whether their influence in today's Tea-Party-infused Republican voter base is as powerful as it used to be -- which is truly an open question, at this point.
Of course, none of this even begins to address what Perry's chances against Barack Obama would be next year, but this may be immaterial to his chances of winning the Republican nomination. Some voters always wind up voting on the "electability" question, but that may not be as true this time around as it once was. The voters who bear the closest scrutiny, on this question, are likely the (fairly moderate) suburban Republican voters who may be concerned with how some of the things Perry says are going to stack up next to Barack Obama's campaign rhetoric.
Some Democrats may even now be viewing Perry's rise in the polls with glee. The reasoning behind this will be: "Let's hope they pick their worst candidate, to improve our guy's chances!" This, however, can be quite dangerous. OK, sure, in the midterms Republicans blew several quite-winnable Senate races (see: Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle) by nominating some pretty far-out Tea Party candidates. But this sort of wishful thinking also has a long history of backfiring.
Remember all the Democrats who greeted the nomination of George W. Bush with joy? Remember how easy that Texas buffoon was going to be for Al Gore to crush? Dubya spent two terms in the White House. Older Democrats will also remember the relief which the Carter White House greeted the news that the Republicans had nominated that absolute joke of a candidate, Ronald Reagan. He also served two terms (three, if you count George H.W. Bush's term as a Reaganite victory lap). Be careful what you wish for, in other words.
But no matter how Democrats (or Republicans, for that matter) are currently viewing Rick Perry's candidacy, one thing is for certain. From now on, Rick Perry is going to be taken a lot more seriously. By everyone.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant