Perry obviously would have enormous strengths in the South and especially in the crucial South Carolina primary. But he has to get there first, which probably means winning in Iowa. New Hampshire isn’t typically happy hunting grounds for southern evangelicals — witness the humbling of George W. Bush in the 2000 primary and Mike Huckabee’s distant third-place finish in 2008. In theory, perhaps Perry could finish second in Iowa and second in New Hampshire and still retain significant support going into South Carolina, but Mitt Romney proved in 2008 that boasting of “silver medals” doesn’t count for much. Especially given the large expectations for Perry, anything but first in Iowa would be a blow.
That means Perry will have to beat Bachmann, and will have to beat Romney if the latter chooses to make a big play in the caucuses. With her victory in the straw poll over the weekend, Bachmann has a significant head start. She has about 5,000 people who are already, in some sense, invested in her campaign. Bachmann has been consistently underestimated. She destroyed Tim Pawlenty, a candidate who seemed much stronger on paper. Perry has a couple advantages over Pawlenty, though: 1) He has more time. Pawlenty felt he had to take down Bachmann within a matter of weeks this summer, and it didn’t work. Perry can hope gravity eventually drags her back down to earth over the next six months. 2) He is not bringing to bear a softer-sell conservatism. He presumably can match both Bachmann’s full-throated conservatism and her spirited presentation.