I'm getting a lot of disagreement with my earlier statement that the race is still Mitt Romney's to lose. Some of it is irrational exuberance from Perry supporters. Some of it is legitimate. Your mileage may vary on my thinking, but I did want to lay it out.
I think the first thing to point out is what Sean Trende pointed out at Real Clear Politics.
Around this time in 2003, it was a given that Howard Dean would be the Democrats' nominee, and that John Kerry's campaign was on life support. In 2007, people were already writing the postmortems on the Obama and McCain campaigns, dissecting what had gone wrong. In all three cases, it wasn’t until November that the eventual nominees began to show some signs of life. My former colleague Jay Cost is fond of saying that pollsters right now are polling a bunch of people who just aren’t paying attention. He’s right, and that’s important to keep in mind.
That is precisely right and precisely my starting point.
What we have now is a five way race for the primary: Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney.
Neither Huntsman nor Paul, at this point, have a path to victory, but their voters could be deeply influential in picking the nominee — ironically, though polling at a smaller percentage, Huntsman's voters will have more influence than Paul's because Paul's are largely of the "Paul or nobody" variety. Huntsman likewise has not yet begun to fight with his money, so we can't count him out just yet.
Yes, Herman Cain's voters, Newt Gingrich's, and Rick Santorum's will also play a role, but those candidates themselves have ceased to be relevant in 2012 and, despite my highlighting Trende's points about early conventional wisdom, these candidates will not regain any relevance. Their paths to victory are gone for good.
So why is it still Mitt Romney's race? Two things: money and Karl Rove.
Rick Perry may get ahead of Mitt Romney in the polling, but he cannot knock Mitt Romney out. Romney has too much money and can add more at will. Perry is, in fact, going to have to do a serious job of raising money online from the grassroots and high dollar donors.
More so, we still don't know if Rick Perry is going to be just a flash in the pan. He could be. He'll have to work on positioning himself as someone more than a regional candidate, let alone a candidate without broad base appeal throughout the Republican Primary. Perry is going to have a great few weeks, but we'll need to see about his staying power. If he is unable to stay strong, Romney will be able to play it, but even more so, someone like Chris Christie, rumored now to be looking at getting in, might be able to capitalize on it. (Full disclosure: I don't think Christie is running)
Mitt Romney's money advantage can buy him time to hold on and wait for Perry to implode. And helping Perry implode will be none other than Karl Rove. The rumors about a Bush vs. Perry antagonism are really more about Rove vs. Perry and Perry's team. The hostility is already there and Rove plays not just for keeps, but also to avoid his own marginalization should Perry be the nominee.
The attacks are going to come fast and furious over the next couple of months. If Perry can withstand them and raise money, then yes, it will be his to lose. But right now, the attacks are just revving up. While the attacks may be old to tuned in Republican activists and Texans, they will be brand new to voters just starting to tune in.
Yes, Perry is a candidate many people are suddenly excited about. But Romney does not need excitement. He has high name identification, lots of money, and patience to wait while others attack Perry. I think it is still his to lose. More so, Rick Perry will have to fight Michele Bachmann over a common pool of voters that Romney does not necessarily need.
If, by November, Perry is still holding his own, then I think Perry really becomes the true front runner and it will become quickly locked in by a primary calendar that will favor Perry. Between now and then, my guess is that the polls will fluctuate with rumors of other candidates, possible other candidates, and several debates to shape the candidates.
Putting it another way: Mitt Romney has been the front runner for months on end. Rick Perry has only been in the race five days. That's too soon to suddenly declare Romney, with his money and backers, in second place.