Patrick Semansky/AP
In this June 18 photo, Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

Rick Perry's most rapt audience: Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney

A Perry candidacy for the 2012 GOP nomination could be devastating for conservative rival Michele Bachmann. Rick Perry would also be a bigger threat than Bachmann to moderate Mitt Romney.

In the Dance of the Seven Veils that has become Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s possible presidential campaign, the two most interested audience members may well be the top rivals for the GOP nomination: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Six veils are gone. The seventh will go in the next two or three weeks. That’s the time frame Governor Perry has laid out on a decision over whether to enter the 2012 race. In his latest public utterance on the matter, Perry told the Des Moines Register last week that he’s “getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do.” And Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) told the Register he thinks it’s very likely that Perry will run, based on a conversation the two had last Friday.

For Congresswoman Bachmann, a Perry candidacy could be devastating. Both are popular with tea party activists, both speak openly as Evangelical Christians about their conservative views on abortion and gay rights, and both know how to raise money. But Perry has extensive executive experience –more than 10 years as governor of Texas -– and Bachmann does not. He can also boast strong job creation during his tenure. Bachmann can’t.

Even as an undeclared candidate, Perry nearly matches Bachmann in recent polls. According to Real Clear Politics, Romney leads the pack with an average 24 percent of the GOP primary vote. Bachmann comes in second at 13 percent, and Perry third at 12 percent.

For Mr. Romney, the picture could take longer to clarify. If Perry enters, he and Bachmann could spend some time duking it out for the conservative vote, which strengthens Romney’s standing as the sole moderate with a flush campaign war chest. But analysts expect Perry would prevail over Bachmann – and give Romney a run for his money as the Texan presents a clear contrast to the former Massachusetts governor’s less ideological demeanor.

“Perry is a more serious figure than Bachmann, by a very great deal,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I think Bachmann will fade quickly.”

Bachmann did well last month in her first presidential debate, but she has a long catalog of awkward public statements. They include embarrassing historical inaccuracies and many examples of harsh antigay rhetoric.

Still, Perry remains untested on the national stage. Just 2-1/2 years after a former Texas governor, George W. Bush, left the presidency deeply unpopular, the nation may not be ready for another one, despite their differences. Perry’s suggestions of support for Texas secession from the Union a few years ago would require explanation. He also has some ground to make up with Latino voters; in a recent appearance at a convention of Hispanic leaders, he was received coolly.

Perry has also sparked controversy by playing a major role in a big prayer rally scheduled to take place at Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 6. Among social conservatives, the rally may be a plus for Perry, but it could harm him among the moderate and independent voters who will ultimately decide the 2012 election.

If nothing else, the potential game-changer of a Perry candidacy shows that, in fact, the 2012 campaign is still just getting started. Slack fundraising among most of the Republican field in the second quarter of 2011 may demonstrate that there’s still a lot of GOP money out there waiting for a candidate. But the only way to test that theory is for an exciting new prospect to enter the race. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin seems increasingly unlikely to run. It may be up to Perry.

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