CNN asked me to analyze the impact of Rick Perry’s entry into the presidential race earlier this week, and my essay poses this question: has this become a two-man race?  Assuming that we see no other late entries, the subject of my prior post, and that Perry makes no major missteps that derail his bid, the Texas governor has a pretty clear shot at making himself into the alternative to Mitt Romney that grassroots Republicans have sought all year:

Romney has little credibility with the grass-roots conservatives who helped turn 2010 into a massive Republican victory in the House. Tea party activists have no affection for the man they blame in part for greasing the skids for “Obamacare” with Romney’s health-care mandate in Massachusetts. They want a firebrand conservative in the race as the not-Romney, much as the former Massachusetts governor ended up being the not-McCain that conservatives backed by default in the final stages of the 2008 primary campaign.

Until Perry’s entry, Bachmann was the only candidate who could legitimately make that claim. Bachmann has tirelessly worked to organize and promote the tea party and has championed their causes in Congress. She shot up in the polls, while fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty languished and eventually withdrew, and surpassed other grass-roots-fueled candidates such as Herman Cain and even [Ron] Paul to move near Romney — until Perry entered the race.

Perry won’t claim the same level of tea party loyalty as Bachmann. He has too much record as governor in Texas to have the kind of purity Bachmann can boast. But Bachmann lacks executive experience and any record of legislative accomplishment, while Perry has put conservative principles to work in Texas. He also owns the jobs issue, which will be central to the 2012 general election. …

The question then becomes whether the grass roots can buy Perry as tea party enough to become the not-Romney in the election. Perry’s reception in Waterloo shows he can make that argument to the party’s base and do so without carrying Bachmann’s baggage of inexperience and thin record.

Again, this is speculative, but the Rasmussen poll yesterday that showed Perry rocketing past Romney indicates that this dynamic may already be occurring.  The contrast in styles and impact between the supposed interloper from Texas and the hometown favorite in Waterloo was striking on Sunday.  If Perry can consistently perform like that in Iowa, Romney may be left with only New Hampshire and maybe Michigan, while it’s difficult to see Bachmann breaking through anywhere else.  The same is true for the other second-tier candidates.

That includes Ron Paul, who came in second in the Ames straw poll, just slightly behind Bachmann.  I bring this up for a couple of reasons.  Paul’s supporters have loudly complained that no one took his close second-place finish seriously and that the media has barely mentioned it.  That is the result of finishing second, of course, and not first, although I have to give kudos to the Paul team for their big push in Ames.  After seeing them on the ground, I thought they would narrowly win it, and they nearly did.

Still, the topline winner gets the media attention, except for that directed at the candidate who withdrew after finishing third, Tim Pawlenty.  Call it the Glengarry Glen Ross rules: first place is a Cadillac, second place is a set of steak knives, and third place is you’re fired (NSFW):

Second, I began to notice an older e-mail account inbox getting an inordinate amount of messages on my way home from Waterloo Sunday night. Most of them sounded suspiciously similar — Rick Perry is a fraud, Rick Perry is a sex addict, Rick Perry isn’t … Ron Paul.  One e-mail  received a few hours later warned me that a crank I had blocked months ago had sent out an e-mail to a number of Paul supporters to flood me with messages about Perry being a fraud and Paul being the only hope for the nation:

Folks, this is an emergency alert. Please email the highly influential conservative blogger Ed Morrissey … and tell him what a dangerous RINO fraud Rick Perry is. You also might want to put in a good word for Ron Paul. Also, your emails must be polite. Morrissey needs to know Rick Perry is counterfeit money while Ron Paul is GOLD.

And the e-mails were polite, I will say that. None of them were in the least abusive. Still, you have to wonder what the e-mailers were thinking in responding to this person’s call to action. His sourcing for the allegations against Perry are, er, not entirely credible. I don’t want to get into the specifics of the “charges” that this person has been flogging for months (which is why I blocked him on my e-mail server), but here’s his bona fides:

I know this because I am a patron of Austin strip clubs. My friends and excellent contacts in the Austin strip club community tell me …

I had an attractive stripper tell me …

Another young woman …

Additionally, there are many people in Austin who are convinced …

Ah, yes. This paragon of civic morals is busy smearing Perry with unsubstantiated allegations of immorality, based on conversations he had with strippers and hookers. Who doesn’t believe everything a stripper tells them?  The only thing funnier than the message itself is the fact that dozens of Paul supporters bought it and responded to me based on his message, which I know because I don’t use the e-mail address he listed since the Captain’s Quarters days, except for personal business. 

The Paulbots are busy filling up the comments at CNN, too, complaining that I’m ignoring Paul’s second-place Ames finish in a piece that actually disregards Bachmann’s first-place finish.  Feels like 2008 all over again, doesn’t it?