GOP contenders striding onto the debate stage Wednesday evening at the Ronald Reagan library will do so knowing that pundits and prognosticators already are beginning to describe the nomination fight as a two-man contest between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Although Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann or Texas Rep. Ron Paul could still find a game-changer to alter the Perry-Romney dynamic, their window to do so appears to be closing, at least in the eyes of many political analysts.
“Clearly the Republican Party is rallying behind Rick Perry in a way nobody expected a couple of weeks ago,” Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza told MSNBC on Tuesday.
Bad jobless numbers, a festering European debt crisis, and a spate of polls indicating that President Barack Obama’s disapproval ratings have hit an all-time high have left Republicans increasingly confident that they can accomplish a political rarity: knocking off an incumbent U.S. president. The credible prospect that a Republican may take the oath of office in January 2013 makes selecting the right candidate all the more critical.
“It is a two-person race,” Democratic pollster and Fox News commentator Doug Schoen tells Newsmax. “Money drives the process. But really, when you look at the polls, it is effectively a two-person race between Rick Perry and Barack Obama.
“Romney is frozen, Bachmann is sinking,” Schoen says. “This is Perry's nomination, if he doesn't blow it and if Chris Christie stays on the sidelines, which is likely.”
Ironically, the view that the nomination is now a fight between Perry and Romney originated with Bachmann’s erstwhile campaign chief, Ed Rollins.
“The Perry-Romney race is now the story, with us the third candidate,” Rollins told Cillizza on Sunday. Rollins later confirmed this view in an interview with CNN host Anderson Cooper.
“You now have two serious money people in the sense of Mitt Romney and [Perry] . . . I think legitimately it’s a Romney-Perry race, they’re the leaders in the polls, leading in money,” Rollins said.
“I think she’s the third candidate at this point in time, which is way different and better than we thought when we started this thing," Rollins said. "And she’s very much in this thing. And I think the key thing here . . . is think of it as a marathon. It’s a long time before voters actually cast their votes. It starts in Iowa, and she’s still very strong in Iowa.”
Rollins announced he would be stepping down from the campaign, citing health reasons. That left observers to speculate whether his candidate evaluation of Bachmann’s campaign had led to a shake-up.
“I love Ed, but the ‘health’ excuse reminds me of what a mobster says to avoid going on trial,” Bloomberg author and columnist Jonathan Alter told Newsmax by email. “This is a two-person race, but Bachmann can do a lot of damage to the frontrunners in the meantime. Her attacks on Perry for being a Ricky-come-lately conservative could resonate.”
Whether Bachmann has an opportunity Wednesday to take on Perry directly will depend on whether the Texas governor is able to take a break from fighting the Texas wildfires that already have destroyed 1,000 homes. On Tuesday afternoon, he signaled he might forgo the debate in Simi Valley, Calif., in order to remain on the job in the Lone Star State.
Not everyone agrees, of course, that the contest already is a two-man race. Former George W. Bush campaign advertising guru Mark McKinnon tells Newsmax that the race remains wide open.
“I think things are so volatile, anything can still happen,” he says. “I don't count anybody out, and I'm not sure that everyone [who will toss their hat in the ring] is in.”
There are indications Bachmann may have lost momentum and may be under pressure to deliver a rousing debate performance on Wednesday to re-invigorate her candidacy. The latest Gallup poll has Perry leading the GOP faithful with 29 percent, followed by 17 percent for Romney, 13 percent for Paul, and just 10 percent for Bachmann. That same survey in July showed her support at 13 percent.
But the real decision-makers who will determine how many viable candidates remain in the race are donors rather than voters. So far, many major GOP donors have held back from writing big checks as they watch the front-runners shake themselves out.
In the first half of 2007, for example, GOP presidential candidates raked in about $118 million. That compares with just $40 million Republican contenders collected in the first half of 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Bachmann is a skilled debater who knows how to fire up a conservative crowd, and was the top fund-raiser in Congress during the 2010 political cycle. But she has yet to demonstrate she can appeal to the mega donors, who often write checks based more on electability than ideology.
Perry seems to already have jumped that hurdle. On Tuesday, NBC News investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff reported that “Make Us Great Again,” a pro-Perry super PAC, has crafted a strategy to pour $55 million into key primary battleground states. The group’s objective is to overwhelm his opponents and seal the GOP nomination for the Texas governor by next spring.
“After countless attempts to lure new options into their party’s presidential field, GOP fundraisers and power brokers are coming to terms with what looks like an increasingly binary choice between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry,” Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin of Politico.com report.
University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato tells Newsmax that “it is a pretty good bet” that Rollins’ departure from the Bachmann campaign is a sign of internal friction. He adds it is “pretty obvious at this point” that Romney and Perry are the “two finalists, at least at the moment.”
Sabato adds: “Strange things happen in politics, but they have the money and poll ratings to claim the head-of-the-pack status. And Perry is currently out in front, although I don't think it's over at all. Usually in open-seat contests like this, it is a roller coaster.”