Goldberg: Perry's sweet spot

EntertainmentPoliticsTelevisionRepublican PartyMitt RomneyRick Perry

Is it too late for Mitt Romney to ask Tim Pawlenty to endorse Rick Perry instead? On Monday, the former Minnesota governor and, until the Iowa straw poll, presidential contender endorsed Romney's presidential bid.

As best I can tell, reaction from rank-and-file Republicans does not suggest that a resulting tectonic shift in the polls toward Romney is imminent.

According to legend, Josef Stalin asked, "How many divisions does the pope have?" Upon hearing the Pawlenty news, no doubt Perry said something similar, albeit with a Texan flavor. Perhaps, "How many buckaroos does Pawlenty have in his posse?"

The answer, of course, is, "Not many."

As Pawlenty put it in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, he went "all the way from 1% to 1%" in the polls.

Pawlenty also added that there's "more and more of a reality TV show component to these races; you gotta have not just money, but you gotta have an entertainment component" as well. When Colbert asked Pawlenty whether he considered juggling, Pawlenty responded, "I thought about shooting sparks up my butt."

Let's be fair: That might have worked. But so might have talking like the guy we saw with Colbert. The one time I met Pawlenty, at the governor's mansion in 2008, he was a wry, sharp, funny character. As a presidential candidate, however, he seemed more like a nerdy high school assistant principal awkwardly trying to rev up the student body before the homecoming game.

Romney's problem is more acute. Romney has an authentic inauthenticity problem. There are some animals that just seem fake when you see them in real life for the first time; sharks and alligators come to mind. Last year, I took my daughter swimming with a dolphin. Not only did the creature look like it was made of plastic, it actually felt like it was made of rubber.

I have shaken Romney's hand a few times, and I can say he feels surprisingly lifelike. But politically he just seems fake, even though what you see is what he really is. Romney is a much better candidate than he was in 2008, but there's still something about the guy that makes people say, "There's just something about that guy." And given Romney's rich history of flip-flops, he just seems untrustworthy to the tea-fueled base of the GOP.

Indeed, for reasons neither altogether rational nor fair, Republican voters increasingly seem to associate being boring with being "establishment."

Perry, the Texas governor, has a very different challenge. He doesn't have to worry about seeming lifelike enough. He needs to figure out just how much larger than life he can appear without becoming a caricature.

As it is, there are days where Perry seems like he could count on two hands the number of times he's had to shoot a man for cheating at cards.

So far, though, it's not a big problem. The latest CNN poll shows that 42% of Republicans think Perry has the best chance of beating President Obama, compared to a mere 26% for Romney. That's a great place to be, given that the top concern of three-quarters of GOP voters is electability.

And it poses a real dilemma for Romney. His strategy until last month was to make it to South Carolina or Florida as the "anybody but Bachmann" candidate, i.e., the one potential nominee who can beat Obama. But much to the dismay of both Michele Bachmann and Romney, Perry has stolen her "tea party" thunder while still seeming more mainstream.

Pawlenty has a point about the "entertainment component" in politics, though it's less of a new phenomenon than he suggests. Obama's fans may not be too eager to admit it, but take out the entertainment factor from 2008 and odds are the president today would either be Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain.

Republican voters really want to beat Obama. But they also really want to like their nominee. Right now, Perry is in that sweet spot.

Romney's options are limited. He can try to tear down Perry's likability or his electability, or he can try to raise his own. None of those options are easy. And winning over Pawlenty and his divisions won't make the task any easier.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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