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The stages at upcoming Republican presidential debates will remain crowded, at least for a while, but it has already become clear that the GOP race is a contest between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Supporters of other hopefuls will complain that this assessment is premature and unfair, insisting that their favorite can win if given enough attention by the media. Those complaints are not without merit, but that doesn’t make the two-man race any less real than it is.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s prospects vanished when Perry entered the race, and Newt Gingrich’s victory scenario disappeared when his campaign launch flopped. Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s message has always been out of sync with the majority of his party, while businessman Herman Cain lacks the experience to be taken seriously.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has the profile of a contender, but he lacks the fundraising ability and stature needed to win the nomination. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman looks the part of president, but his main appeal seems to be to Democrats and journalists, neither of whom will select the GOP nominee.
Three other hopefuls — former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter — get no media attention, which reflects their limited prospects and guarantees they won’t get on most people’s radar.
So it’s Romney or Perry for the GOP some five months before the Iowa caucuses begin the actual process of selecting delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention.
Instinctively, a majority of Republican voters are likely to prefer Perry. His anti-Washington record and rhetoric makes them feel all warm inside, and his Texas twang gives him a huge advantage throughout the South.
In contrast, Romney’s Mormonism is a substantial liability, primarily — but not only — in the South, and many conservatives — not surprisingly, given his record — have doubts about how deeply his convictions run.
Fundamentally, Romney’s greatest appeal is to the business community, country-club types and suburbanites, while Perry has stronger appeal in the South and West among religious conservatives and to the angry antigovernment crowd.
Thirty-five years ago, that political equation would have benefited the former Massachusetts governor. Today, however, Texan Perry seems to fit more easily into the sweet spot of the GOP.
But that does not mean Perry will necessarily defeat Romney for the nomination.