Perry and Cain Compete to Be the 'Anti-Romney'

With the former Massachusetts governor firmly planted near the top of the GOP race, the two challengers are jockeying for position as his foremost alternative

Perry Cain debate - Stephan Savoia AP - banner.jpg

Although Texas Gov. Rick Perry survived last week's debate at Dartmouth College, he must do better than simply surviving in the upcoming debates, starting with Tuesday night's in Las Vegas.

Perry's reported third-quarter haul of $17 million is impressive, but his poll numbers are in free fall and his organization isn't even remotely comparable to that of the GOP front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Such poll hemorrhaging can only hinder future fundraising and organizational efforts in key early states. Enticing local activists or new donors to climb aboard what appears to be a sinking ship is a pretty tough sell. If Perry doesn't step up his game and quell growing reservations about him, his days as a real contender--if any still remain--may soon be over.

That leaves two scenarios. In the first, without transforming into a world-class debater, Perry recoups enough to stabilize his candidacy, placate at least his Texas donors (after all, he remains governor of the Lone Star State regardless), and become the Romney alternative--albeit one with clipped wings who is unlikely to ultimately prevail. Perry could repair some self-inflicted damage, though with the Iowa caucuses scheduled for Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary potentially coming as early as December, there isn't much time for a dramatic turnaround of his fortunes. Holding out for later victories is an option, though former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's 2008 debacle suggests that strategy has shortcomings.

Or, Perry proves unable to stanch the bleeding and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain solidifies his position as the anti-Romney, even though Cain has no discernible campaign strategy and questionable ability to raise serious money. Cain's poll numbers soar as doubts about other contenders on the most conservative end of this field mount. Clearly, conservative Republicans like what Cain says and his plainspoken way of saying it. The question is whether they really see Cain as a possible nominee and president, or just as a place to park after pulling their support from the previous flavors of the month.

One wonders if Cain's campaign has any idea what it's doing. This past weekend, Cain took a bus trip through Tennessee (a March 6 Super Tuesday primary state, really?) from Memphis, his birthplace, in the west all the way to Cookeville in the east. Such counterintuitive campaigning suggests Cain's schedule is determined as much by random chance as by political strategy (though opportunities to sell autographed copies of his book at $100 a pop seem to make it onto the schedule). This is not the way to win a Republican nomination, particularly one that seems to have growing value by the day. Two things are becoming clear: Romney is emerging as the clear front-runner, but an "anybody but Romney" resistance will coalesce behind either Cain or Perry. What is no longer clear is whether Perry will be the last guy standing against Romney.

On at least one level, this campaign parallels the 2008 one in the ups and downs. Arizona Sen. John McCain's candidacy went from a runaway lead to collapse in the summer of 2007. Giuliani, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Romney alternately auditioned for the lead role and flopped. That vacuum enabled McCain to come back from the political equivalent of the living dead and not only win the nomination, but seal it quite early.

Although Romney never started in McCain's front-runner position, at different points, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and Perry all have enjoyed their day in the sun. And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum turned in some solid debate performances. But all seemingly petered out; my guess is that Cain will, too. Who is the guy left standing? Romney.

This brings us back to the adage that Republicans wind up nominating the guy who's next in line, like McCain, who was runner-up to George W. Bush in 2000. The GOP could be in the middle of continuing that habit in 2012, as Romney is the only top-tier retread from 2008.

One Romney strategist compared their situation to playing the kid's game Whack-a-Mole, in that they must hammer down successive opponents as they stick up their heads. How much is attributable to the Romney campaign whacking and how much was self-ducking is debatable, but the metaphor still works.

More twists and turns lie ahead, but the field looks narrowed, and the odds that Romney, President Obama's most formidable potential adversary, prevails are improving. Sure, this story line may change, but every day it continues, it is a little less likely to have a different ending.

Image credit: Stephan Savoia/AP