And like that, it's a three-person race. The Electable Mitt versus the Tea Party Darlings.
The GOP isn't so excited about the development. Two days after Michele Bachmann's Ames Straw Poll win and Rick Perry's surprise showing, conservative political analysts are starting to panic, the Atlantic Wire reports. A 14-point memo detailing Perry's flaws is making rounds in Iowa. Republican pollsters have moved from defending Bachmann to warning she "could sink the GOP," Ryan Lizza wrote. Even Karl Rove is beating the drum on "electability" five months before the first GOP primary.
If the Republican graybeards are panicking that the fringe is taking over the party, they have one person to blame. It's the president.
The theory assumes that the Republican primary voter is a rational conservative, and in that order. He wants to elect somebody with small government principles and a conservative social record. But he also wants to win.
In other words, the conservative flank of the party can vote with its heart or its head.
If the president appears so weak that anybody could conceivably beat him, the heart wins the day. Tea party queen Bachmann and the small government evangelical Perry are the clear heart candidates. But if the same voter perceives the president as likely to beat Bachmann as he is to beat Perry, that voter is more likely to go to the ballot thinking long-term strategy, and the consensus safe-pick in a general election is clearly Romney.