You could tell Rick Perry was going to be a big problem for Mitt Romney as soon as the Texas governor started blowing him kisses. Asked a question on his first campaign leg about a Romney talking point, Perry brushed it off with a smooch and said, "Send him my love."
It was classic Perry audacious, a little gauche and entertaining as hell. Surely, Romney didn't get blown many "right back atcha" kisses in the offices of Bain Capital or during his time as Massachusetts governor. The message was that Romney was about to get a challenge from a competitor less polite and earnest than erstwhile candidate Tim Pawlenty.
With Perry's entry in the race, the Republican presidential battle got the adrenaline shot it lacked. Republican primary voters had been yearning for a big combative personality. They flirted with Donald Trump while he flirted with them, and briefly bestowed their favor on the energetic and mediagenic Michele Bachmann. But Perry has filled the void in full.
He's a current officeholder and not a former something-or-other. He has a view of the world exactly counter to the president's. He evidently has an allergy to nuance. And he campaigns with a plunge-into-the-crowds, let-it-all-hang-out relish that none of the other candidates can match. There is no substitute for a politician enjoying himself, and out on the hustings, Perry acts as if nothing could possibly please him more than shaking another hand or slapping another back.
Even during the debates, where his performances have been uneven, Perry has usually been loose and confident. He never shies from a fight, and (most of the time) seems to enjoy them. He laughs easily. No one would vote to elect him to the Oxford Union, but if it somehow happened, he'd have a heck of a time exchanging frank views with "the fellas."
What we're about to see is if these qualities of Perry call it his "hossness" are enough for him to become the durable front-runner in the Republican nomination fight. He can go a long way just by demonstrating he's a fighter in the mold of a Sarah Palin or a Donald Trump. That means making the occasional incendiary comment, never apologizing, earning the hatred of the elites and not sweating the details. All of this, Perry has nailed.
But to become president of the United States, he'll have to reach persuadables who don't value outrageousness for its own sake. If he's never willing to back down, he'll have to go should he win the nomination all the way to November 2012 defending the notion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is possibly guilty of treason. On Social Security, he's managed to take what turns out to be his thoroughly conventional Republican view that the program should stay the same for seniors and near-retirees while it's reformed for younger people and make it radioactive through his choice of words and his theoretical musings. His campaign so far has no policy except generalized statements celebrating Texas and condemning the federal government.
Tellingly, his weakest moments in the debates have come when he's been attacked from the right and can't fight back with brassy, crowd-pleasing one-liners. He's made uncomfortable by his streak of pragmatism as Texas governor. For all his self-portrayal as an anti-government purist, he's adept at marshaling and using power. When he says he's pro-business, he's not kidding. Republicans will have to quickly drop the phrase "crony capitalism" from their vocabulary if he's the nominee.
In this year of populist discontent, the blunt outsider Rick Perry has a natural call on the Republican heart. The question is whether he can maintain enough appeal over time to the Republican mind, which will eventually calculate the odds of a prospective nominee vanquishing the incumbent. Whether Perry makes it or not, he'll never be dull. If success were solely a matter of animal spirits, he'd be a lead-pipe cinch.