There were a number of major differences between the first Republican presidential debate in South Carolina last month and the second one Monday night in New Hampshire. But most important was that after South Carolina, the discussion was centered on the possible candidates who weren’t there. This week, the GOP buzz is about the performances of the candidates on the stage–not potential saviors who are still dithering about their presidential plans.
The strong performances by Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann have diminished the endless speculation about those Republicans who are still undecided about joining the race. But it has not eliminated it entirely. Among the most prominent of the question marks is Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry spoke in New York last night and according to Politico burnished his credentials as the architect of Texas’s booming economy but gave no indication whether or not he would run for president.
As a big-state governor with a successful record, Perry can put forth a coherent rationale for a presidential candidacy. After Tim Pawlenty’s dismal showing in Monday’s debate, it can certainly be argued there is room for a mainstream conservative to challenge Romney. But it’s not clear whether Perry is that man or what GOP constituency it is to which he would appeal. Some assume Perry would be competing for the evangelical and social conservative vote. But there is no vacuum on the GOP right, especially with Bachmann off to a strong start. Nor is there any reason to believe Perry is a more natural representative of Tea Party sentiment than Bachmann or any other Republican already in the race.
I don’t subscribe to the notion time is running out for other challengers to join the field. Given sufficient money and appeal, any of the big names such as Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan or even Perry could jump in late summer or early fall and still have a reasonable chance to win. But the problem isn’t timing. It’s the assumption the existing field is so bad that those still waiting to decide will inevitably sweep them aside once they join the race. The more candidates like Romney and Bachmann build momentum, interest in non-candidates will diminish. As those already running strengthen their campaigns and get down to the nitty-gritty of organizing ground forces to bring out the vote next winter, expect the clamor for people like Perry and Palin to diminish, not increase.