The Real GOP Race: Rick Perry Vs. Mitt Romney

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The Texas governor, who entered the 2012 presidential race on Saturday, poses the biggest threat to the GOP's frontrunner

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Until now, the biggest question looming over the 2012 Republican primary was who would emerge as the leading alternative to the nominal front-runner, Mitt Romney. We now know the answer to that question: Rick Perry.

Sure, Perry jumped into the race only one day ago and needs to prove he's worthy of the national stage. Yes, Michele Bachmann is the one who boxed Tim Pawlenty out of the race with her triumph in the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday.

But it is the governor of the great big state of Texas, not the Minnesota congresswoman, who poses the biggest threat to Romney from here on out. That's because Perry boasts that killer combination of assets: the power to grab hold of voters -- which Bachmann shares -- plus a concrete record of creating jobs. It's the rhetoric plus the results, the inspiration layered on top of the perspiration.

The void in Bachmann's resume was laid bare in Thursday's Fox News debate, when she cited the "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act'' as one of her biggest accomplishments. In an interview on Sunday with CNN's Candy Crowley, all she could point to was her education reform agenda as a state lawmaker in Minnesota.

"The Republican nominee and the next president of the United States is going to be Rick Perry or Mitt Romney,'' said Fred Malek, a top Republican money man who ran George H.W. Bush's 1992 campaign. "Michele Bachmann has struck a real chord on the issues important to conservatives, but what we need is a governor with proven record of job creation, deficit reduction, and other accomplishments.''

A member of the House has not been crowned a party nominee since James Garfield in 1880. Bachmann's victory in a mock, Midwestern election dominated by the fringes of the Republican Party only served to highlight her narrow appeal. In contrast, both Perry and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, have won statewide elections with Democratic and independent votes.

Mounting anger with President Obama over the economy's woes makes it unlikely that voters will take another chance on a crowd-rousing lawmaker who lacks executive experience.

"Republicans feel that if we lose the election, we lose the country,'' said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist for George W. Bush who advised Romney's 2008 campaign. "We are not going to nominate somebody who has no chance of winning enough votes to defeat Barack Obama.''

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.

As for the rest of the field, few people outside of Jon Huntsman's campaign can envision his path to the nomination. Ron Paul is a cult figure, not a party standard-bearer. Rick Santorum beat expectations in the straw poll, but his main role in the race has been to needle the other candidates.

The next potential watershed in the rapidly changing race will be the debate sponsored by NBC News and Politico in Simi Valley, Calif., the first time Perry will be lined up next to his rivals on national television. Two more debates in two weeks, both in Florida, will keep the candidates on their toes.

"The real question for Perry is how he adjusts to being an official presidential candidate, because it's unlike anything else,'' said Republican strategist Jim Dyke. "It exposes candidates in ways they couldn't have fathomed or trained for. It's something you can't teach.''

Romney has already started pivoting toward Perry in recent days, emphasizing his success as a corporate executive above all else. Perry can't point to experience in the private sector. While Romney would never have wished for a challenger as potentially formidable as Perry, he will be a much tougher nominee in the general election if he is able to defeat Perry, just as Obama was strengthened by his epic primary battle with Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.

Image credit: Jim Young/Reuters

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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