Until just last week, things were looking up for Republicans, with Obama’s approval ratings sinking and the GOP nomination process settling down to a choice between two potentially formidable candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. But after the demolition derby of “P5”—the series of candidate events in Orlando including a candidates’ debate, a state straw poll, and several speaking opportunities—fear and panic have gripped elite GOP circles. Indeed, what’s been revealed is that the two front-runners are locked in an increasingly savage competition that exposes both of their vulnerabilities. Perry, the red-hot bullet in many recent polls, stumbled his way through Orlando and left in considerable disarray. The long-awaited Florida straw poll turned into a rout for former pizza magnate Herman Cain. And time is truly running out for any last-minute establishment savior to enter the race, while the possibility most mentioned, Chris Christie—who left the door to a late run open just a bit after his Ronald Reagan Library speech this week—has his own baggage to handle, including heterodox positions and his own recent assessment that he is not ready to serve as president.
These current events leave GOP elites in quite a bind: Do they hope Perry recovers his debating mojo in the next candidate forum, on October 11 in New Hampshire, and resumes his earlier march through Iowa and South Carolina to the nomination? Or should they instead conclude that Romney was right in gambling that conservative activists would eventually tire of complaining about the Massachusetts health plan or his increasingly distant record of flip-flops on abortion and gay rights? In either case, they’ve got to decide fast, as a protracted fight will surely hurt the eventual nominee down the road while diverting attention and resources from the cause of defeating Barack Obama.
The Perry-Romney decision is a tough call for Republicans, to be sure. Misgivings about Romney are deep-seated, and transcend any particular issue. Elites will not soon forget his disastrous Iowa loss in 2008 to the lightly-regarded, underfunded Mike Huckabee, or the suspicion that Romney’s Mormon faith will act as a permanent millstone on his ability to attract conservative evangelical voters. And it’s hard to overcome the nagging conviction that today’s GOP base is not in the mood to nominate anyone who is considered moderate, or who evokes anything other than horror and post-election Canadian travel plans among Democrats. Michele Bachmann perhaps captured this conservative zeitgeist best during the Orlando debate, when she described Obama as a sure loser and suggested Republicans could go ideologically hog wild without fear of any consequences.
But elite reactions to Perry’s Sunshine State meltdown were authentically shrill. Most significant, perhaps, was that of RedState’s Erick Erickson, who provided the venue for the Texan’s carnivorous presidential announcement speech in August:
Rick Perry stands on the precipice. He is about to fall off … . [A]nother performance like last night could push him off the edge of support among people who want an anti-Romney alternative, but who really want to beat Barack Obama even more.
And Michelle Malkin, another conservative opinion-leader who could never be described as a Romney-loving squish, observed: “Perry said he’s in favor of making English the official language of the U.S. Perhaps he should concentrate on mastering it before the next debate.”
What most fed the harsh judgments of Perry in Florida is that he stumbled at moments when he should have been thoroughly scripted and rehearsed: his incoherent effort to blast Romney as a flip-flopper, and his halting, defensive efforts to defend himself on Social Security and immigration. On this last subject, he managed to make his terrible positioning worse by suggesting that critics of the Texas DREAM Act were heartless, if not bigoted—the kind of talk considered offensively slanderous in Tea Party circles. If he’s this bad on the predictable stuff, what would happen to him in a debate with Barack Obama? Elites are prone to worry about this kind of thing. They also might well worry about whether the powerful Perry campaign organization, led by the supposed strategic genius Dave Carney, is in fact built on feet of clay. After hyping the Florida Straw Poll for weeks as a major milestone of the 2012 race, Perry skipped town before the final speeches and was absolutely demolished by Herman Cain. When you are outworked by a candidate who was earlier written off for the languorous pace of his appearances in Iowa, your campaign is no juggernaut.
To be sure, while there are reasons for GOP elites to worry about both of the front-runners, there is also no guarantee that either will self-destruct. CNN’s first national poll, taken after the week of Florida events, shows relatively little movement other than a mini-surge for debate stars Cain and Gingrich and serious declines in support for Bachmann and Paul. And before long, the “invisible primary” dominated by elites will give way to the actual caucuses and primaries where voters—albeit activist-dominated base voters—begin to take over. But until a clear consensus emerges, insiders will be forced to watch in horror as Team Romney derides Perry as unelectable, and as Team Perry attacks Romney as an “Obama-Lite” RINO, with both sides hemorrhaging money and Democrats taking careful notes.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.