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The GOP’s Three to Beat

With the Iowa dust settled, the Republican 2012 field has a new top tier—two ascendant religious rock stars, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, gunning for econo-centric frontrunner Mitt Romney. Jill Lawrence on the suddenly hot GOP race.

The Republican nomination race has suddenly metamorphosed from a snooze fest into a three-way smack down with a fascinating cast of characters. Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, two aggressive, charismatic religious conservatives, will spend the next few months vying for values voters and the role of chief alternative to Mitt Romney. As for Romney, the econo-centric envoy from the Eastern establishment, he’s about to be forced off the sidelines by a pair with hair as good as his.

“That phase is over now,” GOP strategist Alex Vogel says of frontrunner Romney’s Rose Garden strategy. “Perry is an unproven but legitimate threat to Romney’s inevitability. Romney needs to engage now or risk losing the spotlight indefinitely.”

The new top tier of Bachmann, Perry, and Romney—created by Bachmann’s Iowa straw poll win, Perry’s entry into the race, and Romney’s lead so far in many national and state polls—has unleashed torrents of talk about the reshaped race. Romney’s home-state Boston Herald says Perry, not Bachmann, is now Romney’s “worst nightmare.” Ben Shapiro, a columnist and radio host, has all but declared Perry the nominee. “Why is this a tough decision? Gov of top job creating state in US vs father of Obamacare and short-time Congresswoman from MN. RU kidding?” he tweeted.

There are plenty of rejoinders to that, and the main one applies both to Perry and Bachmann: are they too conservative to beat President Obama? “Old Republican pragmatists like me wonder, are we going to nominate our own McGovern, or are we going to nominate somebody who can win a general election? And that’s unclear,” GOP strategist Mike Murphy said on NBC’s Meet the Press. He not only dismissed Bachmann’s chances of winning the nomination but also said Perry would be a weak candidate against Obama.

Another party strategist said electability is a real problem for the GOP, pointing to Sharron Angle, nominated by Nevada Republicans last year over the more moderate Sue Lowden to take on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “People knew Angle was a much worse candidate against Reid,” the strategist, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast. “Do not underestimate the willingness of a whole lot of Republicans to vote for someone that they want more than someone that they think can win. There is a very significant segment of the Republican electorate that is going to fall in love with Michele Bachmann.”

“Do not underestimate the willingness of a whole lot of Republicans to vote for someone that they want more than someone that they think can win.”

Perry, Bachmann, Romney

AP Photo

Bachmann addressed those questions and others in appearances Sunday on talk shows on five networks. She had a standard answer as one host after another asked her how she would extend her reach: she thinks she already has broad appeal. All across Iowa, she said on show after show, Democrats, independents, and “apolitical people” have come up to her and said they voted for Obama but now are for her.

Asked on CNN what positions she has that appeal to moderates, she replied: “People want job creation. They want the economy to turn around and work. I have that background.” The credentials she gave are that she was an attorney for the IRS, and she and her husband started a counseling business. She did not outline much in the way of an economic plan beyond cutting the corporate tax rate and repealing what she called “job-killing” laws on health care and Wall Street regulation. Pressed by NBC’s David Gregory about whether she would extend unemployment benefits that are running out for the long-term jobless, Bachmann replied, “I think it would be very difficult for us to do because we, frankly, don’t have the money.”

Several interviewers made valiant attempts to pin Bachmann down on her opposition to raising the debt ceiling. Her answers made it unclear exactly who would be advising a Bachmann administration on economics. She told Gregory she does not listen to financial experts such as those at Standard & Poor’s or PIMCO, experts who were discomfited that Republicans were using the debt ceiling as a bargaining chip. She listens to the people, she said, and the people didn’t like the debt deal.

The same polls that showed popular opposition to the debt deal also show that large majorities of Americans want to reduce the $14.3 trillion national debt in part with tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. But Bachmann considers the people she meets at her events in pivotal early-primary states to be a more accurate sample. “I have not gone one place in Iowa or South Carolina or New Hampshire where anyone has said, ‘Please, raise my taxes. They are not high enough already.’ Never happens,” she said on CNN’s State of the Union.

Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday tried hardest to pin Bachmann down on the real-world feasibility of a bill she introduced to avert a default without raising the debt ceiling. She would have paid creditors, Social Security, Medicare, and the military. In order to do that and not stiff anybody, Wallace said, “You would have to cut everything else 68 percent: veterans’ benefits, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food and nutrition programs, IRS refunds, the FBI. Would you have been willing to gut those programs?” Bachmann did not answer the question. Instead she asked her own: “Doesn’t that tell how bad off the United States is?”

The round of morning shows also highlighted Bachmann’s lack of executive experience and made clear she is out of the mainstream on gay issues. She said on CNN that she would “probably” reinstate the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy—the one some military leaders have argued strongly against—because “it worked very well.” She said on ABC and NBC that she isn’t running to judge gay people. More memorable is what prompted that response—a 2004 speech at an education conference in which she equated homosexuality with “personal bondage, personal despair, and personal enslavement.”

The deep dig on Perry’s words and deeds is just beginning. Already Democrats are poking holes in his job-creation record, attributing growth in Texas to the Obama stimulus package and booming business for oil companies and military contractors. Perry’s religiosity remains to be explored, along with the question of whether voters are ready for another Texan so soon after George W. Bush.

For now, Romney remains the frontrunner for the nomination. It went virtually unnoticed amid the fireworks between Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty, but Republican strategist Frank Luntz says Romney had one of the best moments of last week’s debate—his first answer, a seven-point economic plan in 125 words. “He was the only candidate up there, no matter how simplistic it was, to lay out a governing plan, a clearly defined philosophy. That was a very smart move for him and that made him presidential,” Luntz told The Daily Beast.

Right now the two rock stars are ascendant and consuming all the oxygen. From the standpoint of interesting politics, it can’t get much better—but it might. If Sarah Palin gets into the race, says Christian Broadcasting Network analyst David Brody, “You may have to revive me with smelling salts since I will pass out from being delirious!”

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