Will GOP Choose John Kerry or Howard Dean?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 16, 2011 · 8:59 AM EDT

The stages at upcoming Republican presidential debates will remain crowded, at least for a while, but it has already become clear that the GOP race is a contest between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Supporters of other hopefuls will complain that this assessment is premature and unfair, insisting that their favorite can win if given enough attention by the media. Those complaints are not without merit, but that doesn’t make the two-man race any less real than it is.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann’s prospects vanished when Perry entered the race, and Newt Gingrich’s victory scenario disappeared when his campaign launch flopped. Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s message has always been out of sync with the majority of his party, while businessman Herman Cain lacks the experience to be taken seriously.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has the profile of a contender, but he lacks the fundraising ability and stature needed to win the nomination. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman looks the part of president, but his main appeal seems to be to Democrats and journalists, neither of whom will select the GOP nominee.

Three other hopefuls — former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and Michigan Rep. Thaddeus McCotter — get no media attention, which reflects their limited prospects and guarantees they won’t get on most people’s radar.

So it’s Romney or Perry for the GOP some five months before the Iowa caucuses begin the actual process of selecting delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Instinctively, a majority of Republican voters are likely to prefer Perry. His anti-Washington record and rhetoric makes them feel all warm inside, and his Texas twang gives him a huge advantage throughout the South.

In contrast, Romney’s Mormonism is a substantial liability, primarily — but not only — in the South, and many conservatives — not surprisingly, given his record — have doubts about how deeply his convictions run.

Fundamentally, Romney’s greatest appeal is to the business community, country-club types and suburbanites, while Perry has stronger appeal in the South and West among religious conservatives and to the angry antigovernment crowd.

Thirty-five years ago, that political equation would have benefited the former Massachusetts governor. Today, however, Texan Perry seems to fit more easily into the sweet spot of the GOP.

But that does not mean Perry will necessarily defeat Romney for the nomination.

The question is whether Republican voters ultimately will go with the red meat, Perry, or opt for the safer choice, Romney, who sounds more “presidential” and would appear to have more appeal to swing voters and moderates.

Republicans find themselves essentially in the same place that Democrats did in the fall of 2003 and early winter of 2004, when they had to choose between then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Obviously, the Dean-Kerry metaphor isn’t identical to the Perry-Romney race, but it is instructive about how the dynamics of a contest can change over time.

At various points in a campaign, voters are looking for one thing or another, and those things can be very different in August of the off year than in January of the election year. And in the case of Dean, the media’s focus on the “national” primary obscured a much closer race in Iowa.

In national surveys, Dean started to establish himself at the head of the Democratic pack in November 2003. In a mid-December Gallup poll, Dean opened up a clear lead, drawing 31 percent and putting him far ahead of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gen. Wesley Clark and Kerry, who were all bunched in the very low double-digits.

The Vermont governor had recently won a mother lode of endorsements, including those of former Vice President Al Gore, two huge labor unions (Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), former Sen. Bill Bradley (N.J.), Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and a slew of celebrities.

In two early January 2004 Gallup surveys, Dean’s only real competition was the largely untested Clark, while Kerry was sitting at 9 percent shortly before the Iowa caucuses.

Polling of likely Iowa caucuses attendees showed a much tighter contest, but with Dean again far better-positioned than Kerry.

In August 2003, Dean had held a narrow 25 percent to 21 percent lead over then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) among caucuses attendees, according to polling conducted by Research 2000 for KCCI TV. Kerry was third at 16 percent.

Throughout the summer, fall and early winter, Dean either led the race in subsequent KCCI polls or was tied with Gephardt in the mid- to upper-20s, with Kerry generally sitting in the middle of the teens.

Dean’s strength in Iowa and nationally looked so great and his momentum so strong that even someone who should have known better — me — wrote in this space in November that there was an 80 percent chance that Howard Dean would be the Democratic nominee in 2004.

But the race in Iowa shifted dramatically in the final days, as voters moved toward Kerry and then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and away from Dean, and then the national numbers flipped.

Exit polling in Iowa showed Kerry did well across all demographic groups, suggesting that the breadth of his appeal was a considerable asset. He didn’t just win moderates or people with more education or people who approved of the war in Iraq.

While Kerry trailed Dean among those for whom the war in Iraq was the top issue, Kerry held his own among those attendees and clobbered the Vermonter among those for whom the economy and jobs was the top issue — a much larger proportion of caucus-goers.

The Iowa caucuses are a long way off, and the Republican race might take many turns. But Romney has the potential to be Kerry in the GOP race — serious, thoughtful, measured ... and presidential.

The key questions, then, are whether Perry will fall into the trap of being the Republicans’ Dean and whether GOP voters in 2012 are so angry and itching for a fight with President Barack Obama and his party that they don’t even care who sounds more presidential.