Jonathan Chait

Rick Perry, The Hair Apparent

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Most political reporters came away from last night's Republican debate impressed with Mitt Romney. I came away wondering what possible advantage Romney could have over Rick Perry from the perspective of a Republican voter. It is true that Romney towered over the rest of the field, both literally in in his general alpha-male ability to project a sense of command. But his weaknesses are vast and unexploited. Last night Romney did not even bother to deny that his health care plan was a replica of President Obama's, instead resting his entire defense on the fact that he only imposed it at the state level. Federalism is not a distinction anybody actually cares about, as demonstrated when Romney himself cast it aside in a subsequent exchange over gay marriage.

Tim Pawlenty, who I massively overestimated, seems unable to expose Romney's ideological heresies. Bachmann, I think could do it, but at this point she is more interested in establishing herself as a mainstream Republican figure -- leaning too heavily on anti-Romney attacks could make her appear as the voice of a dissident faction. Two strategists for rival campaigns laid out the dynamic fairly persuasively:

A senior Bachmann aide, Ed Goeas, told POLITICO that the campaign sees three spaces in the race: One for Romney, who Bachmann’s aides believe is capped at less than 40 percent of Republican support; one for the grassroots favorite Bachmann; and one for Perry, if his campaign succeeds in taking off. A Pawlenty adviser, meanwhile, argued that Bachmann has the most to lose from Perry’s entry, and that he will cut into her grassroots base.

I think we're probably looking a a three-way Romney-Perry-Bachmann race. Perry holds the dominant position here -- he can expand into either Romney or Bachmann's support, while both of the others are pinned to one flank of the party.

I think Romney, not Bachmann, has the most to lose. Perry is Romney without the weaknesses -- a tall, handsome, alpha male with extraordinary hair who fulfills the cinematic vision of a president. Perry has made his career doing exactly what his role calls out for him here -- knifing less-ideologically pure Republicans and playing to the party's id. Ask yourself: what Republican voter would prefer Romney to Perry? Perhaps Mormons, or those who worry the party has grown too extreme, or those who think it risks defeat by appearing too stridently conservative. That doesn't sound to me like a majority of the primary electorate.

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