Meet Rick Perry, the Anti-Romney

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With potential to unite tea partiers and mainstream Republicans, party insiders say the Texas governor is a leading 2012 contender

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Republican political operatives continue to see former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as the frontrunner for their party's 2012 presidential nomination, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry has become his primary challenger according the this week's National Journal Political Insiders Poll.

A separate poll of Democratic Insiders, released Thursday, also showed Perry as Romney's main GOP challenger.

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Also receiving an index rating: Rick Santorum , 2 percent; Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Buddy Roemer, and none, 1 percent; Gary Johnson, less than 1 percent.

*Methodology: In tallying the rankings, a first-place vote was worth 5 points, a second-place vote was worth 4 points, and so on. The Insiders Index reflects the percentage of points that each contender received out of the maximum possible. For example, Mitt Romney scored an Index rating of 93, meaning he received 93 percent of the possible 535 points, the number he would have if all 107 participants in the poll this week had ranked him first. Some Republican Insiders ranked fewer than five candidates.

For five consecutive Political Insiders Polls dating back to January, 2010, Romney has held onto his first-place ranking in this survey. And his most recent rating is the highest score he's achieved in any of the surveys. But as some prospective Republican presidential contenders decided not to make the race--like governors Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Mitch Daniels of Indiana--and GOP White House hopefuls like former governors Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman of Utah have slipped, Perry has rocketed into contention, even though he has yet to declare he's a candidate.

Pawlenty is ranked as the third leading contender for the nomination, but his fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann is breathing down his neck in fourth place in the rankings. Two months ago Pawlenty was ranked second and his Insiders Index ranking was more than five times Bachmann's score. The intervening CNN New Hampshire Republican presidential debate where Bachmann showed passion and Pawlenty punted an opportunity to challenge Romney on health care, apparently made a big impression on Republican Insiders in this relatively fluid contest. Huntsman rounds out the top-five.

At the same time, some of the biggest names in the GOP have now become afterthoughts to lead the party in 2012: former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who remains a popular figure among conservative Republicans, has tumbled to eighth spot in the GOP Insiders ranking. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the architect of the party's 1994 takeover of the House, has fallen out of the top-ten rankings altogether.

Romney's strengths remain what they have always been: his fundraising ability, the experience he gained from his losing 2008 presidential bid, the tendency of Republicans to nominate someone who has been around the track and his years running a private equity firm before he became governor which give him credibility on the economy.

"Republicans decide whose turn it is before the race even starts," said one GOP Insider. "Nobody announced or otherwise, has the stature, passion or money to take this away from Romney." Another observed, "The debt crisis plays to the economic cluster of issues that he owns. Changers come and challengers go and he remains constant." Added a third: "The Republican electorate is predictable and Romney will be the nominee if the tea party doesn't overtake the process."

Indeed, some Republican Insiders think Romney has thrived because the race lacks strong establishment choices like Barbour and Daniels. "The three-ring circus going on around him makes him look more presidential by the day," opined one GOP Insider.

In this unsettled GOP race, Perry has emerged as Romney's leading rival. He's seen as a candidate who could blend rank-and-file Republican support with tea party backing. The solid job growth in Texas over the past decade while he's been in the governor's chair could also burnish Perry's credentials on the economy.

"If and when Perry gets in he will shoot to the top as he can draw from the tea party and establishment voters," said one GOP Insider. "He has more juice than Bachmann and is viewed as more authentic than Romney." Another GOP Insider described Perry this way: "He's a tea partier with governing credentials. That's a tough combo to beat, in a primary anyway."

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James A. Barnes & Peter Bell

James A. Barnes is a political correspondent for National Journal. Peter Bell is the graphics editor for National Journal.

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