The race for the Republican presidential nomination was shaken up this weekend, with the late entry of Texas Governor Rick Perry and the exit of former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty following his disappointing third place finish in the Ames Straw Poll. After a long-delayed start, the race for president has finally kicked into high-gear, with debates scheduled nearly every week beginning in September and the winnowing process commencing in earnest.
Three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry stole some of the limelight from Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann by announcing his candidacy on the same day as her victory in the Ames Straw Poll. He enters the race as a top-tier candidate alongside Bachmann and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, leaving the other candidates struggling for recognition. His main rival is Bachmann, as both compete to be the choice of social conservatives and the right-of-Romney vote. Perry’s main obstacle is the high expectations that sometimes kill the candidacies of late entrants, such as General Wesley Clark in 2003 and former Senator Fred Thompson in 2007. However, unlike those two examples, Perry is a powerhouse and has more extensive campaigning experience.
In the wake of the fanfare surrounding the Perry and Bachmann campaigns, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy came to an unceremonious end. He spent over $1 million on the straw poll, and won only 13.6 percent of the vote. Congressman Ron Paul doubled his amount with 27.7 percent, and Bachmann won with 28.6 percent. “We needed to get some lift to continue on and have a pathway forward. That didn’t happen,” Pawlenty explained. His tone signaled deep frustrated with the failure of his conservative record to provide the propulsion his campaign desperately needed.
“What I brought forward, I thought, was a rational, established, credible, strong record of results, based on experience governing—a two-term governor of a blue state. But I think the audience, so to speak, was looking for something different,” Pawlenty said.
Perry is likely the last candidate to enter the race, unless former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, or former U.N. ambassador John Bolton jump in at the last moment. The field is now taking shape, and Romney, Bachmann and Perry are widely viewed as the frontrunners.
Romney is hoping to score big early victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, where polls show him with large leads. Perry’s candidacy has the potential to assist the frontrunner, as it could split the anti-Romney vote and result in damaging squabbling between those trying to win that part of the Republican base. Every single candidate’s first priority will be to bring Perry down, which leaves Romney relatively untouched in debates and criticism. However, if the anti-Romney vote coalesces around Perry’s candidacy, then Romney will find himself in trouble.
Bachmann’s campaign depends upon the results of the caucus in Iowa. Like Perry, she needs to earn the supporters of other candidates who have positioned themselves to the right of Romney. She needs Perry to stumble, the race to narrow, and backers of other candidates to abandon hope and join her candidacy as the viable alternative. Her challenge is to fend off the attacks of her competitors and to undermine Perry without alienating his supporters.
The candidacies of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and businessman Herman Cain are also dependent upon strong performances in Iowa. Santorum made progress with a strong performance in the last debate, and finished ahead of Cain in the straw poll. However, it will be very difficult for him to sooth the concerns of those who point to his 18-point defeat in 2006.
Cain, despite coming in fifth place in the straw poll, is vowing to continue on. “We spent zero on TV, zero on the radio. So this campaign is encouraged and our momentum continues to grow,” he said. The success of his campaign is indeed impressive given its disadvantages, but it is undeniable that he is losing major ground. As for Newt Gingrich, without having actually competed, Gingrich came in eighth place in the straw poll, although some commentators felt he won the debate that preceded the poll. With nearly weekly debates scheduled beginning next month, his candidacy cannot be counted out. It is critical for Gingrich’s campaign that the field be further reduced so that he can receive adequate time at the debates.
New Hampshire is the linchpin of Romney’s campaign, and that is also where Congressman Ron Paul and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman plan to make their stands. Paul is counting on votes from independents and the strong enthusiasm of his supporters that brought him a near victory in the Ames Straw Poll. Huntsman is hoping that his moderate positions will allow him to win independents, but he came in ninth place in Ames and had a lackluster debate performance. Neither candidate poses a serious threat to Romney at this stage. New Hampshire is a unique case where a victory by Ron Paul is not completely out of the question, but his limited appeal would prevent him from moving to the top tier. Huntsman has underwhelmed many, and something huge will have to happen to make him a viable candidate.
Over the course of a single weekend, the race for the Republican presidential nomination has completely changed. Now, as debates become more frequent, and the stakes become more serious, the race will be more lively, competitive and exciting. Expect more twists and turns in the coming weeks.