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Gov. Rick Perry speaks at a ceremony where he presented the Texas Legislature Medal of Honor to Elvira Rocha-Cisneros, the mother of Marine Cpl. Roy Cisneros. Cpl. Cisneros died while serving in Vietnam. (AP)

The GOP Race Begins Now

Sep 6, 2011

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Ben Casey button. Polls months in advance of the primaries and caucuses may mean little, as Mitt Romney learned in 2008. Forty years ago today, YAF endorses Vice President Agnew as the GOP's standard bearer for 1972.

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Ignore all that other stuff.

Yes, we've had months and months of non-stop activity by the Republicans who would like to take on President Obama next year. We've had a few debates, a bunch of straw polls, campaign finance reports, visits to the early primary and caucus states, some almost candidacies and even a major dropout.

But now the battle for the GOP nomination starts in earnest, beginning this Wednesday with the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. (sponsored by Politico and NBC News; 8 pm ET).

It's not just because it's the first debate since the dramatic announcement by George Pataki that he would not run for president (insert sarcasm reminder here). But it is the first one that will include Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in the immediate aftermath of his Aug. 13 candidacy declaration has surged to the status of "frontrunner" in nearly every poll.

It's hard to remember the last time a time a presidential candidate joined a race relatively this late in the game and made this much of an impact. Part of it is based on Perry's style, his affinity for Tea Party causes, and his record as governor, in which he boasts of unparalleled job creation and growth. But part of it has always been the fragile status of the previous leader in the polls, Mitt Romney. A former governor of Massachusetts, Romney was thought to have the upper hand because of his fundraising advantage, strong organization and the fact that he had run once before; he was an also-ran in 2008.

But his 2008 experience left him with some baggage, not the least of which were the accusations that he shifted his positions on issues as it suited him. An abortion-rights supporter when he challenged Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994 and ran for governor in 2002, he seemingly switched ideology in his '08 bid, espousing many heretofore unspoken views on a score of issues to appeal to a conservative electorate. What made it worse for him is that he constantly attacked some of his GOP rivals — such as John McCain and Mike Huckabee — for lacking ideological purity. And that's not to mention the health-care overhaul he pushed through in the Bay State while governor, a program that many conservatives liken to what Obama shepherded in 2009-10 (and whose repeal remains a strong battle cry on the right). Among conservatives, "Romneycare" is as much of an epithet as "Obamacare."

So Romney was always thought to be a tenuous frontrunner, regardless of Rick Perry's intentions. Remember Tim Pawlenty's status as the Romney alternative? Remember Tim Pawlenty?

That's not to say that Perry doesn't have his flaws as well. There are longstanding charges of cronyism, in which he rewarded many of his campaign contributors with appointments or favoritism. He has a tendency of shooting from the lip, with comments about Fed chair Ben Bernanke and money policy ("treasonous!"), evolution (just a theory) and homosexuals (compared to alcoholics who choose to drink). Under his watch, Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the nation. And some back home still argue that he's "soft" on illegal immigration.

That's not to say, of course, that all or any of this will damage Perry on the campaign trail.

In any event, the emergence of Perry has seemingly caused Romney to change his strategy. Instead of focusing only on Obama — and ignoring his fellow Republicans in the process — he seems to at the least be aware of the new challenges facing him. Never a Tea Party favorite (and never one who seemed to want to curry favor with them), Romney has moved his schedule around in recent days, appearing at a Tea Party event in New Hampshire on Sunday and reversing a decision not to attend a Jim DeMint-sponsored Freedom Forum event today in South Carolina. Some say that the emergence of Perry may have been the best thing to have happened to Romney.

Of course, we should all remember to treat polls months in advance of the primaries and caucuses with a grain of salt. Four years ago at this time, Romney was the clear frontrunner in New Hampshire, with his main challenge seemingly coming not from McCain, who won the primary, but from former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Remember Rudy Giuliani? (Actually, expect his name to come up in the near future, and not just because he is said to be weighing another bid for the White House. The pro-abortion rights former mayor was Perry's choice for president in 2008.)

And Huckabee, who won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, didn't take the lead in the Hawkeye State until early December.

So we have time before we anoint who will become the nominee.

But Wednesday is our first opportunity to see how Perry is faring as his party's new flavor. (Two more debates are scheduled for this month: one on Sept. 12 in Tampa and another on the 22nd in Orlando.) Of course, in a debate with many candidates — also on stage will be Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum — it won't just be a Perry v. Romney show. Nor should it.

Not long ago, it was Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, who was hogging up all the ink. She made a splash in her first debate appearance, and her victory at the Iowa straw poll in Ames last month virtually forced Pawlenty out of the race. But now she has seemingly been usurped by Perry, who also appeals to fiscal and social conservatives. It may take a tumble by Perry for her to become once again part of the conversation.

The Return of Political Junkie. This marks the first time Junkie has appeared as a column since the end of 2008; in the intervening two years, it shifted to a daily blog. Previous blog posts can be found here; the early columns, which ran from January 2004 to December 2008, can be found here. The column will appear every Monday; I will update the political news during the week on Twitter (follow me @kenrudin).

And ScuttleButton Too. ScuttleButton, America's favorite waste-of-time button puzzle, will return in this spot every Wednesday. Because the contest is now a regular part of the Wednesday Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation, many people are being introduced to the game for the first time. Thus, some regular visitors may come across some puzzles they've seen in the past. The good news: the randomly-selected winner will get a TOTN t-shirt!

Time for one question:

Q: Political Junkie is coming back at a time when I've all but given up on caring about politics. I think the last straw was the back-and-forth between Obama and [House Speaker John] Boehner over when the president could give his jobs speech to Congress. I've never seen such a lack of respect, and both sides are guilty of it. — Jennifer Clark, St. Louis, Mo.

A: I'm not sure if I'm ready to say this is the worst it's ever been, but I concede the relationship is pretty poor. Having said that, I think I'm still giving Obama lower marks on this one. Yes, it's true, a presidential request to address Congress is routinely given, and Boehner's refusal to let it happen on Wednesday the 7th is apparently unprecedented. I don't particularly buy Boehner's argument that there are security issues at hand and that votes are taking place that evening. And I think there have been many examples where Republicans have gone out of their way to refuse to work with the president; witness the debt ceiling circus. But at the same time, I don't buy for a second that it was "coincidental" (as WH Press Secretary Jay Carney called it) that Obama asked to address the nation the same moment the Republicans who want his job were debating in California. Many Obama defenders were furious that the president acceded to Boehner's demand and agreed to give his address the following night; many saw it as a pattern of Obama knuckling under pressure. I saw it more as a lack of political smarts by the White House. Even Dem strategist James Carville called the attempt to co-opt the debate "out of bounds." In the end, this is probably inconsequential and will be forgotten by the time of the next flareup, which will most likely happen soon. But I don't give Obama and the White House points on this.

Political Junkie segment on Talk of the Nation. Each Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET, the Political Junkie segment appears on Talk of the Nation (NPR's call-in program), where you can, sometimes, hear interesting conversation, useless trivia questions, and sparkling jokes. Last week's program, with special guest Ron Paul, can be heard here.

Podcast: You can hear the latest episode of our weekly podcast, "It's All Politics," hosted by Ron Elving and myself, here. New episode every Thursday.

ON THE CALENDAR:

Sept. 7 — GOP debate, Simi Valley, Calif., 8 pm ET (NBC/Politico).

Sept. 8 — Obama delivers economic address to joint session of Congress, 7 pm.

Sept. 11 — Tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Sept. 12 — GOP debate, Tampa (CNN/Tea Party Express).

Sept. 13 — Special congressional races in NV 02 (to succeed Dean Heller, R) and NY 09 (to succeed Anthony Weiner, D).

Sept. 22 — GOP debate, Orlando (Fox).

Sept. 24 — Fla. GOP straw poll (at Orlando convention).

******* Don't Forget: If you are sending in a question to be used in this column, please include your city and state. *********

This day in campaign history: Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization, picks Vice President Spiro Agnew as its choice for the 1972 Republican presidential nomination. Sen. James Buckley of New York is named as his running mate. The decision by YAF to nominate Agnew is seen as an effort to persuade President Richard Nixon not to dump him as V.P. in '72 (Sept. 6, 1971).

Got a question? Ask Ken Rudin: politicaljunkie@npr.org

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