MANCHESTER, N.H. — A day after the first big debate of their presidential nominating campaign, Republicans sounded more enthusiastic about their field tbhan before, but some say the big winner was one potential candidate who was not on the stage: Rick Perry.
The three-term Texas governor, who has dropped hints that he may rethink his decision not to run for president, hails from a state that produced more jobs during the recession than any other. After Monday night’s debate, Mr. Perry has become the great hope of a conservative, mostly underground movement within the party to stop the clear front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“The debate revealed that the issue of the presidential campaign will be the economy,” said former Rep. Bob McEwen of Ohio. “And Perry’s record on jobs is stunning. So is his commitment to protecting our borders and securing energy independence.”
The Texas governor, in Manhattan on Tuesday to give the keynote address at the Republican Partys annual Lincoln Day dinner, told Fox News earlier that his wife and others have urged him to consider running and he is “giving it the appropriate thought.”
A sampling of leaders and activists who viewed the debate revealed considerable consensus that Mr. Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas met or exceeded expectations. Mrs. Bachmann made news by formally announcing her candidacy, and many party leaders said they were happy - and relieved - that the candidates trained their fire primarily on President Obama and not on one another.
But with the lesser-known candidates failing to press or ruffle the front-runner, many considered the debate at least a tactical win for Mr. Romney.
New Hampshire Republican National Committee member Steve Duprey, a former state party chairman, said Mr. Gingrich “demonstrated he shouldn’t be written off” and added that it was a “successful night” for Mr. Romney, who “kept the focus on the failures of the Obama administration and took no bullets” from his rivals on the stage.
Some Republicans decided they could just as easily pass on the debate.
Former Maryland GOP Chairman Jim Pelura called the debate “a waste of time” because the “candidates all basically have the same core beliefs, and their answers confirmed that.”
Republicans generally agree that they can’t retake the White House without the enthusiastic support of social conservatives, a bloc that is uncomfortable with Mr. Romney because of his former support for abortion and his backing for a state health care reform law on which Mr. Obama said he had based his national plan. Although most evangelicals publicly deny it, Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion doesn’t help with that voting bloc, either.
Driven in part by a desire to stop Mr. Romney, some top leaders of the social right have met privately and decided that Mr. Perry is their candidate for 2012.
The day after the debate, 20 Arkansas lawmakers announced an Arkansans for Rick Perry committee. They sent Mr. Perry a letter urging him to jump into the nomination contest.
“Of the current slate of Republican candidates,” the lawmakers told the governor, “we do not believe there is one who can better unify our party and take the fight to the Democrats on their old, outdated ideas.”
But some social conservatives said they are frustrated at the delay in presenting a united front as the Republican race heats up.
“I’ve been a little frustrated over how slow it is to get a strong statement from well-respected evangelical leaders to ‘nail Romney’ early before he gains too much momentum,” said Dick Bott Sr., owner of a powerful chain of radio stations in the Midwest. “Perry, he fits the bill on all fronts. Everything about him and his record squares with the type of proven presidential leader America needs - and is looking for.”
Most of those interviewed agreed with former New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who told The Washington Times that all the contenders, including retired corporate executive Herman Cain and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, “did well to resist the temptation to bash each other” and instead focus their attacks on Mr. Obama.
Some who say they have no favorites are skeptical about Mr. Perry’s appeal.
Phyllis Woods, an RNC member from New Hampshire, said that although she has always liked Mr. Perry, recent statements and appearances have convinced her that “he isn’t ready for prime time and probably won’t play well here.”
Another major force on the social right, however, thinks Mr. Perry will play well almost everywhere.
“Economic conservatives, social conservatives - we all feel he is our choice,” said WallBuilders founder and conservative activist David Barton. “There are 30 states that have draft-Perry campaigns going - none of them initiated by the candidate, which is a first in my lifetime.”
Matt Towery, a former GOP member of the Georgia House, said “a Perry candidacy would likely take a huge chunk away from candidates such as Santorum, Bachmann and Cain, thus leaving the race one of GOP establishment versus maverick conservative and successful Texas governor.”
California GOP Assemblyman Dan Logue said he formed a “draft Perry” committee after leading a bipartisan delegation of California lawmakers to Texas to find out why the Lone Star State was creating jobs while California was losing jobs.
According to Federal Reserve figures, 47.8 percent of all U.S. jobs created since the end of the recession were in Texas.
Widely acknowledged as a prodigious fundraiser for his own campaigns and for the Republican Governors Association, which he now chairs, Mr. Perry nevertheless faces a serious challenge under the rules for presidential campaign giving, which set donation limits of $2,550 per person. Some say he will need assurances from his major donors that they can raise $40 million or more for him by year’s end.
New Hampshire’s Mr. Duprey said he thought Mrs. Bachmann’s announcement of her candidacy while millions of Americans watched on TV was a “great move” and that Mr. Gingrich, whose campaign staff last week resigned en masse, “came across as focused with thoughtful answers and helped his candidacy.”
Toby Marie Walker, a tea party activist from Waco, Texas, said, “Color me shocked - I thought Newt did a great job. Mitt Romney did OK, but came across as a fence-rider - and in Texas, there is a saying about that: Eventually, you get a sore crotch.”