The buzz that greeted Rick Perry’s entrance into the GOP primary race has yet to dissipate, and continues to overshadow Michele Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa straw poll. In fact, reading some of the stories about the race, you’d think Bachmann had already dropped out.
There is certainly a lot to support the contention that Perry has passed Bachmann immediately—including plenty of solid polling. But there is one aspect of the election that isn’t playing into Perry’s hands: the primary schedule. While Perry should be a contender in the early states, he’s far from a sure thing in any of them. He’ll be expected to win South Carolina—but that will likely be the fourth primary, and one could argue Perry needs a win before that. This means that the Perry-Bachmann rivalry may have just given Iowa back its relevance.
One of the knocks on Iowa—especially the straw poll—was that the frontrunner (Mitt Romney) and the presumptive soon-to-be frontrunner (Perry) didn’t bother to compete. So there has been limited momentum for Bachmann, despite winning the poll. But this past weekend, Iowa probably saved Bachmann’s candidacy, and it may do it again in January.
I think Perry should be considered the favorite in Iowa at this point, but Bachmann is by no means a long shot. The reason I have doubts about Bachmann in Iowa—the state of her birth and whose straw poll she won—is that when Bachmann is speaking one-on-one, say in a TV interview, she has a way of answering questions that gives the impression her head is elsewhere. She always seems to be addressing the nation at-large, as if the questions trigger a prerecorded response. This is the way to answer questions in a debate—but at the Iowa fairgrounds?
Perry’s ability to connect with voters is legendary. But like the rest of Perry’s persona, it will be tested on a national level. Bachmann has a head start and remains popular with the subset of primary voters that Perry is just beginning to court. If he loses Iowa to Bachmann, it will be read—fairly—as a blow to his campaign. New Hampshire will follow. Nevada will follow New Hampshire. Only then will South Carolina voters get a chance to give Perry some momentum—by which time he could potentially be enduring three straight weeks of the kind of bad press that comes with high expectations and yawn-inducing results.
Ironically, coupled with Perry’s entrance into the race, Bachmann’s straw poll win—once perceived as a mark against the state’s credibility—may elevate Iowa to a level of consequence it rarely enjoys.