- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2011

NEW ORLEANS — The expected emergence of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the clear challenger to presidential nomination front-runner Mitt Romney never materialized at the annual Republican Leadership Conference here over the weekend.

Mr. Perry underperformed, Jon Huntsman Jr. backed out, Newt Gingrich made a comeback, Michele Bachmann came off like a rock star, Herman Cain got considerable love from the audience, Rick Santorum received quiet attentiveness, and Ron Paul’s supporters alienated party regulars as always.

The two contenders that political pros earlier this year figured would be the heavyweights, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Mr. Romney, were no-shows, having turned down invitations.

So, after back-to-back gatherings of party officials and rank-and-file voters at a televised debate in New Hampshire last week and then the conference here, the 2012 GOP presidential nomination contest remains as uncertain as ever.

What is evident, though, is that Mr. Perry - if he jumps in - intends to compete with Mr. Gingrich, Mrs. Bachmann and others for support from the political right, just as Mr. Romney will be competing with Mr. Huntsman for the center-right vote.

Republican activists have now had a chance to look over most of the 2012 hopefuls, and judging from scores of interviews, overheard talk among attendees and the intensity of crowd reaction, there is still no standout who looks destined to grab the big ring next year.

But Mrs. Bachmann, the Minnesotan who founded and leads the Tea Party Caucus in the U.S. House, generated the most buzz here.

A thunderous welcome greeted her entrance Friday into the Hilton Riverside Hotel Ballroom where she gave a speech that had the audience rising repeatedly to applaud.

She lost the crowd for a while in the middle, then finished strong and was the only candidate who descended from the stage into the audience for pictures and autographs.

If she were a senator or governor, her skills as an orator and performance as a political practitioner would boost her into the top tier, GOP campaign professionals said.

Mr. Perry, in his third term and enjoying the distinction of being the longest serving governor in Texas history, uncharacteristically read from a script spread on the podium before him when giving his address on Saturday.

Missing was his usual striding back and forth across the stage, gesticulating and using eye contact with the audience to create a connection that draws listeners into his world - and onto his side.

“Rick thought he needed to be scripted rather than just speak from the heart as he always has in the past,” said Texas Republican National Committee member Bill Crocker, acknowledging what others, who saw Mr. Perry excite audiences at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Council for National Policy earlier this year, said was a stiffness to the address.

The Texas governor didn’t even mention the tea party movement, an omission not made by the other declared and possible candidates.

Veteran GOP strategists and operatives generally agreed that Mr. Perry, though “over-scripted” by his aides this time, performed well enough to keep him in the top tier of announced and possible 2012 candidates.

In contrast, Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker credited with leading the GOP to control of Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years, never took his eyes off his audience, treating them to a professorial monologue laden with substance and seasoned with ironic humor that tore flesh from Democrats - and some Republican government expanders, as well.

Republicans here had put aside Mr. Gingrich’s awkward criticism last month of GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal and the mass resignations by campaign staffers last week. They were ready to move on when they were hit with new accounts of Mr. Gingrich blaming his staff and the press for the campaign’s missteps.

Still, many GOP officials and activists here agreed that the volatile but eloquent and quick-witted Mr. Gingrich was the one candidate sure to “wipe the floor” with President Obama in the presidential debates next year.

Many of these same GOP officials here also agreed that it was Mr. Perry, presiding over a state economy that has prospered while almost every other state’s economy declined during the latest recession, who wore the shiniest credentials to the nomination ball.

The event added to the growing sense that straw polls are of little-to-no value, with the one taken here resulting in what were considered almost universally as absurd results.

Mr. Paul, a libertarian Republican congressman from Texas, won first place with nearly twice as many votes as Mr. Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, who hasn’t made an appearance at a debate or major GOP gathering yet.

Mr. Paul, Mr. Huntsman and all the others except Mr. Romney, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sarah Palin earned only single digits in an average of recent nationwide presidential preference polls based on random samplings of GOP (and in some cases independent) voters.

Mr. Paul’s campaign brought in several tour-bus loads of youthful supporters who cheered him and booed other speakers - a practice considered bad manners by most party regulars, many of whom made plain their indignation by standing and loudly cheering the speaker whom the Paul youths were booing.

GOP officials here from more than half the states in the union speculated that this year may signal the demise of straw polls, as Mr. Romney, competing with Mr. Huntsman for the center-right vote in next year’s primaries, announced he will not participate in any such polls, including the closely watched one scheduled to take place in Ames, Iowa, in August.

Mr. Perry is weighing the cost of running a successful nomination campaign - estimated at nearly $1 billion, including money raised and spent by independent expenditure groups on behalf of candidates - and the probability that he can raise that kind of money from now until a nominee emerges next year.

With the Iowa poll-registration deadline fast approaching and Mr. Perry still weighing a run, his participation in Iowa is unlikely.

• Ralph Z. Hallow can be reached at rhallow@gmail.com.

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