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The Nation: Is Rick Perry The Tea Party Favorite?

Conservative supporters gathered at the Victory Texas and Republican Party  of Texas election night watch party for Republican Gov. Rick Perry on November 2, 2010 in  Buda, Texas.
Ben Sklar
AFP/Getty Images
Conservative supporters gathered at the Victory Texas and Republican Party of Texas election night watch party for Republican Gov. Rick Perry on November 2, 2010 in Buda, Texas.

Ben Adler reports on Republican and conservative politics and media forThe Nation as a contributing writer.

As soon as Gallup released a poll last week showing Texas Governor Rick Perry leading among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say they identify with the Tea Party, the media anointed Perry the Tea Party's favorite candidate. "The Tea Party retains considerable power within the GOP and its backing of Texas Gov. Rick Perry has installed him as the frontrunner in the fight for the nomination," writes Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post. "Roughly six in ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents identify themselves as tea party supporters and among that group Perry takes 35 percent of the vote—well ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (14 percent) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (14 percent.)"

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This confirms two trends we already saw developing: that each major entrant to the Republican field, enjoys an early bounce (Michele Bachmann's has already come and gone), and that Perry will vie for the support of right-wing extremists.

But there's a big difference between "the Tea Party," which is a nebulous network of right-wing activists, and Republicans who, when asked if they like the Tea Party say yes. Among actual Tea Party activists no consensus leader has emerged.

"What we have seen is that among our supporters—we poll them on a continuous basis to see what they're thinking and whether presidential candidates resonate with them—and it moves around," says Sal Russo, founder of Tea Party Express. "Newt Gingrich was popular, Romney did well for a while, after the New Hampshire debate Bachmann surged, now Perry is having his surge. Candidates go up and down based on what's going on, so they haven't settled on a candidate yet."

Dawn Wildman, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, agrees. "Every time a new horse comes in it sort of shakes things up," says Wildman. Every candidate who has been in public life long enough has some blemishes on their record from the Tea Party perspective, but some more than others. "People don't like Gingrich," says Wildman. "He comes with too much baggage." Perry too comes with baggage. "The baggage with Perry is that he's from Texas and he sounds like Bush. Even with conservatives, they don't want to look like they're voting for Bush part three."

Then there's the fact that national polls should not be given too much credence. Not all primary voters are created equal. A handful of random states enjoy vastly outsized influence in the nomination process. So the real question is how Perry will perform in key early states and the answer, at least among Tea Partiers, is that it's too soon to tell.

Iowa, where religious social conservatives like Perry are a large force in the low turnout caucus system, will be a crucial battleground for Perry, as it is much more favorable terrain than socially liberal New Hampshire. But Iowa Tea Party Republicans are hardly ready to commit to Perry. "I don't think people have had the chance to vet him," says Ryan Rhodes, a state coordinator for the Iowa Tea Party. "In Iowa one thing people don't do is choose quickly. Perry might do well in a poll, but will have to answer questions one-on-one in Iowa."

And despite Perry's right-wing rhetoric in recent years, his long tenure in office provides ample opportunity for tough questions from Tea Party conservatives. While the Tea Party is nominally focused on economic and budgetary issues, Tea Party activists tend to be conservative on social and cultural issues like any other group of right-wing Republicans. So Perry's former moderation on immigration and his heretical and his heretical support for protecting Texan girls from cancer are particular sore spots. "I actually think Perry's going to answer a lot of tough question: his stances on border control, his HPV vaccinations program," says Rhodes. "He's been a governor for a long time and in doing that he is going to face a challenge."

Meanwhile, the Tea Party flavor of last month, Michele Bachmann, is hardly conceding the Tea Party vote. On Wednesday afternoon Bachmann spoke at a Tea Party Express rally in Des Moines. The competition between Bachmann and Perry for conservatives in Iowa will soon become a major front in the Republican nomination battle.

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Ben Adler