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Friday, Sept. 9, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the Republican presidential primary a scant month ago and rocketed to front-runner status — nationally and in Nevada.
Last week a Magellan Strategies poll had Perry leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Nevada by 5 points, a surprise for many who saw Romney as having locked up the Silver State, which has seen little play from the GOP field so far.
In his own right, Perry is governor of a state that has weathered the recession better than most — a fact he repeatedly points to on the campaign trail as an example of his leadership ability.
But perhaps his only other notable feature is an eerie resemblance to former President George W. Bush, who left office with an approval rating lower than any president in recent history save Richard Nixon.
So what about Perry has vaulted him to the front of the Republican pack — here and across the country — within weeks of his announcement?
“In politics half is luck and half is the ability to take advantage of an obvious opportunity,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Perry saw a tremendous vacuum here and decided to take the opportunity.”
In other words, Perry’s popularity may have less to do with his record and more to do with the quality of the Republican field vying to take on President Barack Obama in November 2012.
Before Perry, Romney was considered the front-runner. But polls have revealed somewhat reluctant support for him.
“For some reason, he has just failed to connect with a lot of Republican voters,” Sabato said.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has charmed conservative voters and took an early lead in Iowa, but many question her electability against Obama.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, retains a devoted following but suffers from the electability problem as well.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman may not face an electability problem, but his strategy of tacking to the center hasn’t impressed conservative primary voters.
The remaining candidates in the field are simply trying to find any traction they can.
“It’s really an uninspiring field,” said Zac Moyle, a Las Vegas Republican strategist. “That’s the way a lot of Republicans are looking at it.”
Meanwhile, popular Republicans who some voters had hoped would breathe new life into the GOP presidential primary — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — have all said thanks, but no thanks to the race.
In that environment, Perry is the shiny new object that has for now caught the eye of fickle primary voters.
Although candidates have zoomed to popularity only to quickly fade as the campaign wears on — think former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 — some believe Perry has the money and the narrative to keep his front-runner status.
“Rick Perry is trying to ride that Huckabee wave and he’s probably got the resources to sustain it,” Moyle said. “Huckabee was unprepared for the national spotlight. But you look at Rick Perry and he’s governor of one of the largest states in the country. He has a lot more ties to the party. And he generally seems to really fire up the base.”
Sabato said Perry appears to be the candidate who is both conservative enough and considered electable by primary voters.
Nate Silver, who analyzes polling data on his New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight, made the same observation.
“Perry’s lead in the polls right now is based in part on perceptions that he is electable,” Silver wrote. “The recent Washington Post/ABC News poll posed an interesting set of questions to Republican voters — asking them who they thought was closest to them on the issues, and who they thought was most able to defeat President Obama, in addition to their first overall choice. Mr. Perry led the Republican field on each of the measures.”