Wide open: Perry finding huge numbers of top GOP donors, operatives undecided

Hard to say what portion of the enthusiasm he’s seeing is pro-Perry rather than merely anti-Romney, but after this, it’s impossible to believe that he won’t run. Politically, this is as close as it gets to an engraved invitation:

Perry is finding that a vast reservoir of the Republican Party establishment — broadly defined to include elected officials, donors, strategists and activists whose support fuels presidential campaigns — is so far untapped, according to interviews conducted Monday and Tuesday with 19 major donors, strategists and party officials in13 states.

Establishment figures are waiting to see a candidate build and finance a national campaign, hone a strong economic message and, most of all, prove that he or she can go the distance to defeat President Obama. The biggest force driving these kingmakers is that they are hungry for a winner, and although former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is widely considered the early frontrunner, broad swaths of the party remain unconvinced that he’s the one…

“It’s a huge opening for Rick Perry — huge, huge, huge,” said New Hampshire operative Mike Dennehy, who is neutral in the race. “If he announces and really announces with a bang, he could gobble up a solid third of the Republican Party establishment in New Hampshire and, I do believe, nationally.”

Many of former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour’s supporters, who have largely stayed on the fence since the Mississippi governor decided not to run in 2012, are preparing to back Perry. Henry Barbour, the governor’s nephew and a member of the RNC, said that he would endorse Perry if he runs.

“I hope he does run,” Henry Barbour said. “I’ve talked to a number of folks who were going to support Haley had he run and a good percentage of them are very favorable to a Perry candidacy.. . .He’s got a great record in Texas, we align with him philosophically and he can win. It’s that simple.”

A California operative says well-heeled Republican donors there are ripe for the picking too, and a Georgia strategist claims to have heard from Romney donors in Atlanta that they’re ready, willing, and able to jump ship once Perry’s in. The Barbour news is the takeaway, though: We already knew that Perry and Haley Barbour have a “solid relationship,” but if Haley’s son nephew is already willing to commit to him, presumably that means a lot of people in dad’s his uncle’s rolodex will be too. Even Romney could have trouble keeping up with that fundraising juggernaut, especially if some of his donors are ready to flee to Team Rick. Perry will have plenty of money (including from his RGA contacts, of course), plenty of organization, and the distinction of being the only top-tier candidate from the south. How does he say no?

He met with Pervez Musharraf just this afternoon, purportedly at Musharraf’s request (“He wanted to talk to the governor about the economy and jobs and what Texas is doing right”) but presumably with Perry’s eager assent as a way of building a tiny bit of foreign-policy cred. Perry reportedly told him that he wants to see the U.S./Pakistani “friendship” continue; why he wants that in light of the news over the past two months, I have no idea, but it does sound diplomatic. He also finishes with six percent in a hypothetical Iowa field that includes Chris Christie (who finishes with 13, just five points behind Romney), but that poll also includes Palin at seven percent and Perry’s favorable rating among those who know who he is stands at a nifty 51/21. Assuming that he runs and that Christie and Palin don’t — and it’s increasingly hard for me to imagine both him and Palin running — then he should gobble up much of their support and be right in the thick of it with Bachmann and Romney. Which, ironically, could be good news for Pawlenty. If someone on the right doesn’t jump in soon and start siphoning off votes from Bachmann, T-Paw’s in trouble.

Oh, in other election news, Jon Huntsman’s going to start politely criticizing Romney now. So there’s that.

Update: Whoops, a careless error above. Henry Barbour is Haley’s nephew, not his son. Sorry for the mistake.