If Rick Perry wants to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, he is going to have to convince Republican primary voters that he is as talented a politician as Ronald Reagan. In 1980, Republicans were angry about the state of the country. President Carter was seen as embarrassing and incompetent. The economy was in the tank and many analysts thought Mr. Carter would be a pushover when he ran for re-election.
But he wasn't. He led Ronald Reagan in virtually every general election poll taken until mid-October by fairly substantial margins. It was clear that voters wanted desperately to "fire" the incumbent, but it took them a long time to believe they actually could. That was because Mr. Carter and his advisers realized he couldn't win if the election was about him and his performance. To win, they would have to make it about his opponent - Ronald Reagan - and that was exactly what they did.
They portrayed Reagan as a gunslinging extremist from the West who would, if elected, make an admittedly bad situation even worse. Through the late summer and early fall, the strategy seemed to be working just as it had for Lyndon B. Johnson when he trounced Barry Goldwater in 1964, but as voters got to know Reagan, they realized he wasn't the dangerous radical portrayed by Mr. Carter. Reagan proved to be a reasonable candidate who shared their values and might be just what the country needed. Within hours of their October debate, it was as if voters all across the country looked at one another and whispered the words that Barack Obama was later to make famous: "Yes, we can."
With that, Mr. Carter collapsed, Reagan took off and the rest was, as they say, history. Reagan, however, was Reagan. No one who knew him or had much exposure to him could dislike him or feel threatened by him. Once voters sensed that about Reagan, it was over.
Times change, but there is much about the situation in which Republicans find themselves today that has to remind them of 1980. Many of them are drawn to the rhetoric and positions of the man from Texas who would, if nominated, face a president in at least as much trouble as Mr. Carter was then. But this time, anger doesn't begin to describe their feelings about the president and the mess they think he has created. They're downright scared.
That raises the stakes, and voters know it. The historical argument that one person might make a stronger general-election candidate than another hasn't swayed many primary voters. They usually are looking for someone who excites them and shares their beliefs and who will, if nominated and elected, carry out their agenda. This isn't a normal year. Most Republicans not only want to unseat President Obama next fall, but also are afraid of the consequences if their candidate somehow falls short. When voters tell reporters that the country is in real trouble and that something has to be done before it's too late, it's not just partisan talk. Voters believe it and, as a result, are asking themselves the question primary voters rarely ask: "Who would be our strongest candidate?"
If Mr. Perry, who has compiled a great record in Texas, can convince voters that his conservatism is as bone-deep as theirs, that he is a more genuine conservative than Mitt Romney andthat he can win, he could vanquish the second- and third-tier candidates now running and even snatch the nomination itself from Mr. Romney. His problem is that convincing them that he has the talent and personality to do what Reagan did so many years ago will be much tougher than simply flaunting his Texas credentials.
His recent debate performances haven't helped. Reagan removed doubts about his competence and stability when he got on stage with his opponents. Mr. Perry does the opposite. He lost last week's Florida straw poll to Herman Cain, of all people, after a debate performance that may not have driven his supporters all the way over to the Romney camp, but drove them away nonetheless. The fact that he had hinted before the poll was taken that he was putting all his chips on Florida didn't help.
It's not too late. Mr. Perry is a "new" candidate without much experience at the national level but, thus far, the on-the-job training doesn't seem to be working. He can come back. The voters he has driven away haven't yet gone to Mr. Romney and may still be available, but he will have to pick himself up off the mat and wade back into the ring pretty quickly or be counted out.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, seems to be improving as a candidate, and many conservatives are beginning to accept that he may not have begun as one of them, but has developed into an acceptably conservative candidate who could win a general election.
And this year, that's what it's all about.
David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a member of the board for the ACU, the National Rifle Association, the Constitution Project and the Center for the National Interest.
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