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Can Social Issues Give Bachmann the Edge on Perry?

The Economist’s Erica Grieder, who covers the American Southwest, has an interesting post about what the conventional wisdom continues to get wrong about Rick Perry. But I think her analysis indicates a potential path for Michele Bachmann–one that would be of minimal help to her in a general election but which could put a dent in Perry’s poll numbers.

The two classic mistakes Perry’s opponents routinely make, Grieder writes, are that “Perry is a moron,” and that he is a staunch social conservative. On the first claim, Grieder reminds Democrats that this supposed “moron” defeats them every single time. She adds that he has made very few mistakes as governor, and he has a high political IQ. On the second claim, Greider has watched Perry closely and thinks that Perry (like Mitt Romney, though she doesn’t say so) is interested in being a pro-business governor and everything else takes a back seat:

My interpretation of this is that Perry simply doesn’t care that much about social issues. Of course he’ll throw some red meat to the base if it’s not too much hassle, as with the new sonogram bill. But it just doesn’t get him going. He rarely enterprises on these issues. He knows how to play to the base–as in last weekend’s prayer rally—but that’s because he’s shrewd, or if you prefer, opportunistic. As governor, social issues haven’t been central to his administration and I don’t think they would be if he were president, either.

What does get Perry going is economic issues. His strongest ideological commitment is to small-government conservatism—although he’s not pure on that either, because he will engage in some tacit industrial policy if it’s a matter of boosting job creation. He is first and foremost a business conservative, and once you understand that about him, everything else makes more sense.

If this is the case, Bachmann may be able to find a way to run to Perry’s right on social issues. Last Saturday in Iowa, Slate’s John Dickerson spent some time in Bachmann’s tent talking to her supporters. He asked one family about their support for Bachmann, and the mother, Tara, explained that it was Bachmann’s pro-life credentials, then pointed to her adopted daughter and said, “If it weren’t for her birth mother, I wouldn’t be her parent.” But then Dickerson asked Tara about Perry, since he, too, is a pro-life candidate. “If he were here, maybe we’d be at his tent,” she said.

The path to the nomination for either Perry or Bachmann would run through states like Iowa and South Carolina–the two early conservative states. Romney’s lack of credibility on social issues makes him a relatively weak candidate in these states. His strengths as a candidate help him in places like New Hampshire and Michigan. Perry is clearly running as the jobs candidate, basing his campaign on his record as governor of Texas. But the danger for Perry is that he will appeal to moderates on economic issues, but not as well as Romney does, and that he bests Romney on social issues, but not to the extent Bachmann does.

If Bachmann and Romney can squeeze Perry into this middle ground, they might be able to reverse his dramatic rise in the polls.



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