Big casino at Reliant Stadium in Houston this Saturday. Texas Governor Rick Perry is hosting “The Response,” which is being billed as a national day of fasting and prayer to help lift the United States out its quagmire of economic crisis, moral squalor and the threats of mortal enemies.
What Perry hopes it will be is a blitzkrieg political strike that captures the hearts and minds of America’s politically-active, hyper-conservative evangelical community.
If successful, Perry will in one day (after months of careful preparation) enlist a national network of “New Apostle” prayer congregations and like-minded Christians to his cause and in so doing make himself the de facto national front-runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. If unsuccessful, the Perry campaign’s reach will have exceeded its grasp and the post-mortems will be unsparing.
Begin at the beginning. President Reagan was the first GOP presidential candidate who actively courted conservative evangelical voters. In those days, they were loosely organised under the leadership of men like the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who founded the “Moral Majority.” President George W. Bush leveraged the support of evangelicals through two presidential campaigns. In 2004, they were the difference between victory and defeat in the general election. In 2008, evangelical voters provided the fuel that made Alaska Governor Sarah Palin a political superstar. In the weeks after John McCain picked her to be his running mate, evangelical support for the GOP ticket surged, erasing Barack Obama’s lead in national polls until the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent meltdown of the global financial system doomed McCain’s campaign.
Evangelicals and like-minded conservative Christians remain loyal to Palin, but (like many Republicans) fear that she will be unable to defeat President Obama in a general election. They have been casting about for a stronger general election candidate. The purpose of “The Response” is to introduce Rick Perry as the one who can get that job done.
Business Insider’s Grace Wyler has been covering this story for weeks now. Her report on the New Apostles is here. Her report on “The Response” is here. Both reports are worth reading in full. She’ll have more to report late today and throughout the remainder of the week (and weekend). To borrow a phrase, it’s what you need to know about the event and the religious politics behind it.
The national press corps is only now waking up to what is happening. They will react, as night follows day, with horror and dismay to what they learn about “The Response.” This will result in sharply negative mainstream media coverage. That should help Perry. Most conservative evangelicals assume, sensibly enough, that if the mainstream media doesn’t like it, it can’t be all bad. They’ll credit Perry with having the right enemies.
Perry’s timing is shrewd. If he can create a strong emotional connection to groups like the New Apostles, it’s one that will likely endure. If he’s convincing and compelling as their best political hope, he won’t have to keep asking for their support. They’ll work their hearts out for him and steer clear of the spotlight. The question is whether he can make the connection.
It is in Sarah Palin’s interest to see that he does not. Rick Perry is going after her base, brazenly and with politically malicious aforethought. If Sarah Palin is serious about running for president (which many people doubt), Perry’s evangelical offensive is potentially lethal to her candidacy. If she doesn’t counter, then she’s not running. You don’t allow someone to steal your base right before you announce your presidential candidacy. You only allow someone to steal your base if you’ve decided not to run for president.
Assuming that Palin is not running and that Perry will be at least partially successful enlisting New Apostle networks and like-minded evangelicals, the stage is set for a decisive battle in Iowa for the hearts and minds of evangelical GOP caucus-attenders. They comprise 60% (roughly speaking) of the Iowa caucus attender electorate. Perry is in one corner; Rep. Michele Bachmann in the other.
Bachmann surged to the front of the pack in Iowa after her boffo performance at the New Hampshire GOP presidential campaign debate back in mid-June. She did so by lighting up the RIght To Life network in Iowa with her stirring and well-crafted appeal (“I stand for life”) for their support. Perry has waffled on the issue, saying that he supported a state’s right to allow abortion and then switching gears to avow his support for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. He was against it after he was for it, she might say, and she probably will.
On paper, Perry appears to be much the stronger of the two candidates. He has over a decade of experience as the chief executive of Texas (as opposed to Bachmann’s virtually non-existent executive credentials). During Perry’s tenure, Texas has led the nation in job creation. Bachmann has no jobs record she can point to. One could go on at some length in this vein.
But veteran politicians who know both candidates don’t write Bachmann off in Iowa. The state is almost tailor-made for her kind of candidacy. She was born there. She connects to both the evangelicals along the southern border and the more Lutheran voters along the northern border. She is not to be underestimated.
Her crucial test will come not this weekend but next, when the Ames, Iowa GOP Straw poll will generate an “electorate” of 15,000 to 20,000 voters. If Bachman captures 6000-to-7000 of those voters, then she will be the acknowledged front-runner in Iowa.
The task for Perry will then be clear: beat Bachmann in Iowa or risk being a two-time time loser (in Iowa to Bachmann and in New Hampshire to Romney). Candidates who lose both Iowa and New Hampshire don’t win South Carolina. That’s been the iron law of GOP primary politics and it doesn’t seem likely to change this time around. To paraphrase Peggy Noonan, nobody loves a loser.
So that’s where things stand right now.
One thing that is certain is that we have two brackets and all the slots are filled. In one bracket, it’s Romney vs. Hunstman to be the “establishment” nominee. In the other, it’s Perry vs. Bachmann vs. Palin to be the social conservative’s nominee. What happens this weekend (and next) will clarify, a lot, the second bracket.
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