Why Rick Perry is downplaying his front-runner status

Polls give Rick Perry a solid lead over his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination just 2-1/2 weeks after entering the race. But a Sept. 7 debate looms as his first real test.

Eric Gay/AP
Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry gestures while addressing the Veterans of Foreign Wars 112th National Conference Monday in San Antonio.

A wave of national polls has put Texas Gov. Rick Perry firmly in first place for the Republican presidential nomination, just 2-1/2 weeks since he entered the race.

The latest poll, from CNN/ORC, puts Governor Perry in the lead among GOP voters with 27 percent. And if former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani don’t run, support for Perry leaps to 37 percent, followed by 18 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. (and former front-runner) Mitt Romney, 12 percent for Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and single digits or less for everyone else.

But the Perry campaign is playing it low-key. “The only poll that matters is on Election Day,” Perry spokesman Mark Miner tells reporters.

So why is his campaign being so diffident about this burst of success? That’s easy. It’s early, and the battle has only begun.

Governor Perry will appear in his first presidential debate on Sept. 7 – his first big test before a televised national audience – with two more debates in quick succession. If he performs well, or at least competently, and passes the “does he look and act presidential” test, then his numbers could grow more solid. If he stumbles, all bets are off.

This early in a campaign, voters can be fickle. Many remain essentially undecided, even if they have stated a preference to a pollster. One need only look at the two parties’ front-runners at this point in the campaign four years ago to understand the Perry camp’s caution: Mr. Giuliani topped the Republican field and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was the No. 1 Democrat.

Perry is also far from dominant in the two earliest nominating states, Iowa and New Hampshire. The two post-Perry-announcement polls out of Iowa show him on top of the field, but within the margin of error. In New Hampshire, Mr. Romney remains comfortably ahead. And even in national polls, Perry is well shy of a majority.

“In terms of building a majority coalition within the Republican Party, he has quite a bit of work to do,” says David Winston, a Republican pollster. In addition, “his lead is based on some initial perceptions of him, things he has said that have intrigued people. But the Republican electorate has not gone through the vetting process with him yet.”

Still, says Mr. Winston, “I’d always rather be leading,” because if the vetting process gets complicated, “you’ve got some leeway.”

Toby Harnden, US editor of the Daily Telegraph, adds some more notes of caution for Perry. His top competitor, Romney, ran for president four years ago, and is showing himself to be an improved candidate, with “unexpected resilience and staying power,” Mr. Harnden writes. “He is not to be underestimated.”

Also, Harnden says, Romney’s years on the campaign trail mean he has “impressive campaign structures” in the early nominating states. “Perry could catch up but we don’t yet have an indication that he will,” he says.

Still, one pollster, Tom Jensen, from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, suggests that Perry will be more than the latest flavor-of-the-month candidate.

“Before Rick Perry’s sudden emergence, there had been several presidential candidates this year who momentarily captured the imagination of the right wing – first Donald Trump in March, then Herman Cain in June, then Michele Bachmann in July,” Mr. Jensen writes. “But not even Trump so quickly and decisively turned that into an actual lead in a PPP national poll of Republican primary voters.”

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