Obama's Worst Nightmare

Rick Perry raised hand - Jim Cole AP - banner.jpg

Just look at the president's decision last Friday to suspend antismog standards, something that goes against the environmental record his administration has proudly stood for. This was a profound concession: Obama is either conceding that excessive regulation can hamper economic growth, or he's acknowledging the political pitfalls of an activist government. And if the political pendulum has swung so much to the right that even Obama is cutting back environmental protection for the hope of economic growth, it suggests that Perry's antigovernment views aren't limited to cranky conservatives.

The other major asset that Perry brings to the table in a general election is immigration. The Republican nominee's ability to connect with Hispanic voters, concentrated in battleground states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida, is critical to winning the White House in 2012 and beyond. Perry brings a track record of Hispanic outreach in Texas, and he carried 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010 against Democrat Bill White, in line with George W. Bush's performance as governor.

More notably, while campaigning to win the conservative Republican base, he has carefully avoided the strident anti-immigration rhetoric that often characterizes the party's loudest voices. He came out against a border fence--virtual heresy among elements of the right--and didn't back down from his support of allowing illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition in his state. Perry's team is playing long ball, and it recognizes the importance of the Hispanic vote and his unique ability to win enough of them over.

Pair Perry on the presidential ticket with an up-and-coming Hispanic running mate such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and the Hispanic vote is squarely in play. Gallup found Obama's approval among Hispanics down to 44 percent. If Obama can't win over a clear majority of Hispanics, ball game's over.

With his book, Perry opponents believe they have a gold mine of opposition research, but it hardly raises an eyebrow compared to past presidential nominees. Jimmy Carter was eager to face Ronald Reagan, who recorded commentaries arguing that Medicare would lead America down a path to socialism. Bill Clinton avoided military service, admitted to smoking pot (without inhaling), and had to deal with rumors of extramarital affairs during the 1992 campaign. Both won in landslides against presidents facing rough economic times.

With an economy this weak, and with little expectations of it improving, the Democrats would need a scorched-earth culture war campaign painting Perry as an extremist to prevent his capturing the White House, and even that might not be enough. To quote Democratic strategist James Carville: "It's the economy, stupid." If the economy doesn't show signs of improving pronto, Democrats could be staring down the face of President Perry in 2013.

Image credit: Jim Cole/AP

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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