Image: Michele Bachmann
Molly Riley  /  Reuters file
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., speaks at the Faith & Freedom Conference and Strategy Briefing in Washington June 3, 2011.
updated 6/24/2011 11:54:05 AM ET 2011-06-24T15:54:05

Now that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, the biggest question remaining is whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry will jump into the race.

If former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin opted in, watching her and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota tangle would be worth the price of admission. That bout is unlikely to materialize, but a Perry-Bachmann fight for supremacy among social conservatives and tea party Republicans would also be entertaining. Both have the potential to raise a lot of money, motivate armies of passionate conservatives, and run no-holds-barred campaigns aimed at the two-thirds of Republicans who prefer their politics unvarnished and undiluted. Even though Bachmann and Perry would be going after the same market, that hard-core space in the GOP is large enough to prolong the fight for a while.

Video: Perry contemplates run (on this page)

The potential for Perry and Bachmann to suck all the conservative oxygen out of the campaign is great, and their rivals for the right side of the GOP bracket, such as businessman Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum, will have to fight for attention. Just as the battle between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 left their nomination rivals gasping for air and attention, a Bachmann-Perry duel could have the same effect in the more conservative and larger of the two GOP tournament brackets. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson will have their own competition for the narrow but vocal libertarian faction of the party, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich will have to deal with the perception that he is running against himself—and losing.

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That leaves former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and Huntsman battling over the smaller, less conservative bracket. Each is hoping that he can emerge as the non-fire-breathing conservative contender in the GOP nomination championship game. Each believes that the electability argument will work in his favor, that Republican voters will choose him as the one who can play the best game against President Obama.

Electability has not been the strongest argument for a candidate seeking a party’s presidential nomination, but Republicans’ antipathy toward Obama is so great that such a platform might work. A June 8-11 Gallup/USA Today poll found that among 851 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 50 percent said they preferred the type of candidate who would have the best chance of beating Obama; 44 percent would choose a candidate they agreed with on most issues. While the gap between the two options was not statistically significant, it was conservatives who preferred the more-electable candidate by 10 points, 52 percent to 42 percent; moderates and liberals preferred a nominee they agreed with by 8 points, 51 percent to 43 percent.

The obvious danger for Bachmann and Perry is that they might move too far to the right in trying to outflank each other. In that case, whoever wins the one-on-one game could realize only a Pyrrhic victory—unable to make a convincing case that he or she could attract enough moderate voters to defeat Obama. So the question for Bachmann and Perry may be less about how conservative they are and more about where they will end up after fighting it out among themselves.

Video: Bachmann's star power (on this page)

All of this is purely theoretical, of course. During the 2008 election, one could have easily argued that the marathon battle between Clinton and Obama had the potential to force the victor too far to the left to win a general election. That obviously didn’t happen. Perhaps that is because their fight wasn’t about who was more liberal. Instead, it was more of a generational clash. Each projected a different vision, with the older Clinton representing a more conventional image and the younger Obama conveying a more inspirational style.

One way of thinking about the fight for the GOP nomination is that, in the end, Republican voters will have a roster of players from which to choose. They can pick an unadulterated conservative or someone who is more pragmatic and less hard-edged. It’s an ideological distinction but also very stylistic. One type of Republican is like the golf fan behind the rope at the U.S. Open, politely clapping after a good shot. The other is like a Philadelphia Flyers hockey fan, screaming with eyeball veins on the verge of popping.

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Although many Republicans remain less than enthusiastic about the field of candidates, it’s still very early. As the campaign engages, the competition more fully develops, and the perceived value of the nomination rises, we might see the roughest, bare-knuckle fight for the GOP nomination in memory.

The article, "The Cook Report: Ready to Rumble" first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Perry contemplates run

  1. Closed captioning of: Perry contemplates run

    >>> in the race for the republican nomination, the tea party wants an economic hawk, social conservatives want a fighter on prayer and abortion. supporters say that texas governor rick perry is both. we have a republican strategist and former press secretary ? to senator cay bailey hutchenson and just back from austin. great to see you. you worked for senator hutchison on the hill. you were not part of the campaign against rick perry . you're not aligned with him. you don't come from his camp. if you could take a step back at who is rick perry and what does he represent. tell us about him.

    >> you've got to start by recognizing he's governor of the second largest state for 11 years now. he's won statewide election five times. he's never lost an election. i think he would unify social conservatives and the tea party . i think he would be a strong candidate in iowa and south carolina . if our republican primary voters are not wanting to see mitt romney be the nominee, i think you can make a case that rick perry is the stronest candidate become the nominee. you have the remember the narrative in texas is positive. job growth. he's had a very successful session. pro-life, border security , balanced the budget without raising texass. he has a real record to run on. i think he's probably the strongest candidate if he runs to defeat romney for the nomination.

    >> at the same time, he's got this august 6th christian prayer breakfast which is certainly appealing to evangelicals to social conservatives , but does he move too far to the right on the social issues to be a viable candidate if he were to bo the nominee against barack obama ? is he more of a primary vote getter than a general election vote getter?

    >> it's a good question. i've never really quite understood all the controversy around the prayer event on august 6th . to me it seems it's a good idea.

    >> there is the separate of church and state . it is a christian prayer breakfast and it is a government i function. &h?hp &hc%

    >> that's true. keep in mind the time line . he was not preparing to run for president. the opportunity came up. he has a special session that's ending this weekend in austin. he's going to travel the country. meet privately with donors. he's going to south carolina august 3rd to speak at the red state gathering. it's the same day as the ames straw poll . and then the prayer event is that weekend in houston. we're going to know i think in the next four or five weeks potentially by the time of the next debate on july 10th if he's in or not. he doesn't have a lot of time to consider this. ultimately i think he needs to understand can he raise the money to run a good campaign and win the nomination. there's really an opportunity for him based on his record. based on his background.

    >> i think there's an opening in the field. you keep speaking as romney as the man to beat. what about michelle bachmann , very appealing out of the 0000 primary, what about -- new hampshire debate, what about jon huntsman declaring today, pawlenty?

    >> look at the field and tell me is there someone that can win two of the first three states. the only person that can do that is perry. huntsman i don't know where he could win. romney probably wins new hampshire. if perry jumps in, he has a chance to win south carolina and iowa. if bachmann and huntsman can raise that money and win more than one state, i don't know.

    >> he'd be the only southern candidate.

    >> again, governor of the second largest state for 11 years with a really strong record. he's a good speaker and the texas narrative is a real strength.

    >> thank you so much.


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