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Mr. Romney’s biggest problem with his party’s rank-and-file has been his enactment of a sweeping state health care law as governor that requires everyone who can afford it to buy private health insurance, as would Obamacare. He has said it is a state program dealing with a state problem, but has vowed to repeal one-size-fits-all Obamacare and to immediately give waivers to states to drop out.

His strength is his long business career as a venture capital investor whose company provided seed money for promising start-up businesses that, like Staples, grew into major job creators. His advisers think that the recession trumps all other issues.

“I know how to fix the economy. I know how to create jobs,” Mr. Romney says.

Mr. Perry, on paper, looked like the answer to conservatives who do not trust Mr. Romney. He is a longtime conservative governor of a major state with a booming oil economy, no individual income tax, low tax rates and a stellar record of job creation.

But then came his approval 10 years ago of an in-state college tuition break given to children of illegal immigrants, which he defended in a recent debate, saying that anyone who oppose helping these kids get an education was “heartless.”

After stinging criticism for his disjointed, often rambling performance in his last presidential debate, a chastened Mr. Perry retreated somewhat.

Calling his remarks “inappropriate,” Mr. Perry said he had been “over-passionate” in his answer. “I probably chose a poor word to explain that.” Mr. Romney, by the way, said he vetoed a similar state law.

As things stand now, Mr. Perry and Mr. Romney remain the front-runners in a primary season that begins in just three months, and that seems unlikely to change as things stand right now.

Mr. Perry, who surged into the lead soon after he entered the race, has clearly been wounded by his performance in the debates. Mr. Romney has made no missteps yet and has stayed focused like a laser beam on the salient issue that will decide the outcome of this election: the jobless Obama economy.

Party purity, all things considered, takes a back seat in that equation.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.