Texas Gov. Rick Perry on the stump in Iowa. Differences between blunt-talking… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Rick Perry's chest-out leap into the presidential contest has illuminated the perpetual cultural divide among Republicans that could define the GOP showdown in 2012.
Since he entered the race one week ago, Perry has referred regularly to his faith, spouted Texas-isms and expressed his views with the bluntness of a hammer. In comments recycled for days, he described Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke as almost "treasonous," and hinted that Bernanke might face physical harm if he visited the Lone Star State.
His campaign released a video in which the Texas governor strides toward the camera in chaps, ready to saddle up. Asked to distinguish himself from his predecessor, George W. Bush, he replied, "I went to Texas A&M. He went to Yale."
That class-conscious contrast — brash populist versus starchy elite — plays most acutely against fellow Republican Mitt Romney, the literal son of the Republican establishment who embodies the party's upper-crust past.
Harvard-educated Romney, whose father was a governor and presidential candidate, enjoyed a privileged suburban upbringing in Michigan. The Horatio Alger tale Romney relates at campaign stops is his father's life story, no match for Perry's narrative of growing up without indoor plumbing on a dusty West Texas farm.
The cultural differences, more notable for the scarcity of policy distinctions among the Republican candidates, mirror divisions within the GOP electorate and even its dominant conservatives. On one side are the hard-liners, many of them religious, who embrace the "tea party" movement's hostility to Washington and are more likely to lack college educations. On the other are the more secular and moderate, open to government action to protect the environment and regulate business and more likely to have attended college.
The eventual nominee will be the one best able to bridge that divide. But in a general election, the ability to speak to disparate audiences will be even more important.
"We need to be able to appeal to those independent voters who will not vote for a Republican who they consider to be extreme," said Dick Wadhams, a former GOP chairman in the battleground state of Colorado who is unaligned in 2012. "We cannot beat Barack Obama if our candidate becomes the issue."
This week was a reminder, if any was needed, of the difference between a strategy aimed at securing the Republican nomination and one that can win the White House.
Perry's ill-chosen remarks about the Federal Reserve chairman, meant to appeal to elements of his party that detest the Fed's expansive monetary policies, marred his campaign rollout. Even fellow candidate Ron Paul, the U.S. congressman from Texas whose Fed-bashing has earned him a fervent following, quipped: "[Perry] makes me look like a moderate."
The governor moved swiftly to tone down the swagger. He put on a business suit and, when approached by reporters, tried to button his lip.
As Democrats and many Republicans criticized Perry, Romney largely stuck to his campaign plan, highlighting his private-business experience as a former equity firm executive. In what seemed an effort to counter his rival's macho image with vigor of his own, Romney scheduled a lengthy hike up Mt. Washington, the highest peak in New Hampshire, but canceled it as rain moved in.
Stumbles notwithstanding, Perry did enter the race with strengths, many of them cultural. He declared his candidacy one week after staging a mass prayer rally for 30,000 fundamentalist Christians that drew the attention of evangelical conservatives, a GOP force.
Ralph Reed, a longtime evangelical strategist, called the Houston rally "a defining moment" for Perry.
The Texas governor has already demonstrated a "level of comfort with the vernacular and values of evangelicals" that has "freed him up to focus on jobs and the economy," Reed said. He "doesn't have to go out and genuflect" to religious conservatives anymore. Indeed, Perry ignored social issues in his announcement speech and generally discussed them at campaign events only when asked.
The third of the top-tier GOP candidates, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, also has strong ties to the evangelical community, though she obviously lacks Perry's Southern connections and thus presents less of a cultural contrast with Romney.
Yet Vin Weber, a top advisor to former candidate Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out last Sunday after Bachmann defeated him in an Iowa straw poll, said the intense media focus on Perry was understating the magnitude of his fight with Bachmann.
"Maybe Rick Perry will come across as the guy most likely to defeat Obama," he said. But "it's at least as likely" that Iowa voters will view Bachmann as someone who could become the first female president — and a win by her in the winter caucuses could substantially damage Perry.