Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. He is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter: @David_Gergen
(CNN) -- The big story of the GOP presidential race these days is how Gov. Rick Perry has suddenly burst into the sky as a new star. Whether he will continue to burn brightly or flame out is probably the most important question no one can answer.
Only a few weeks ago, the Republican field seemed both weak and settled. Michele Bachmann introduced some uncertainty when she sparkled at the CNN debate in New Hampshire and won the straw poll in Iowa. But she seemed unlikely to catch the front-runner, Mitt Romney. Indeed, he was on cruise control, comfortably out front in polls and money.
Then, boom! Perry jumps in and turns the race upside down. A CNN poll taken over the weekend showed Perry building a 12-point lead over Romney among Republican voters, 30-18 with Sarah Palin third and Ron Paul slipping to fourth. Did last night's debate change the underlying dynamics? Let's await the verdict of voters, but my sense is that Rick Perry walked out the same way he walked in: front-runner.
Mitt Romney has a better command of the facts and, at the CNN debate last night in Tampa, again won on points. But Perry has "command presence" -- that ineffable quality people look for in leaders. Especially in hard, uncertain times, people want someone strong and decisive up front, steering. Romney looks more the manager, Perry the leader.
There is something muscular, tough, almost animalistic about Perry that seems to be resonating among Republicans -- at least for the moment. It's partly the way he carries himself -- shoulders back, chest forward, a confident stride. It's partly his smile as others beat up on him. But it's mostly the way he talks -- simple, straight-to-the-point, colloquial, no qualifiers, cut the B.S. Conservatism served straight up. People are so tired of lying, pandering and political correctness that they enjoy the change: "He didn't say Ponzi scheme, did he? Wow!" He may not be book smart, but he is street smart -- and wily.
His appeal may well be limited to tea partiers and the hard right. Judging from Twitter traffic, many others who tuned in last night were horrified by what they saw. "Lock all those candidates up in the hall so they won't destroy the country," was a typical response from the left. And there were groans as well that the evening was not only too right but too white. We remain a splintered people, so that it may be exceedingly difficult for anyone to govern in the next few years.
Still, the tendency to write off Perry -- especially among the Eastern elite -- is a mistake. Last week, after his debut in the Reagan Library debate where he called Social Security a failure and a Ponzi scheme, the word went out from the commentariat that Perry was toast.
Wrong! If anything, he went up among Republican voters, not down.
For anyone who was around 30 years ago, the comparisons to the Reagan campaign of 1980 are obvious: One of the most qualified men in history (George H.W. Bush) versus an ex-Hollywood actor. Both were good men, but there was a difference: While Bush knew his stuff, Reagan knew how to lead. In uncertain times, voters in both the primaries and the general elections turned to the candidate who offered strength and decisiveness. Gerald Seib has an excellent column in today's Wall Street Journal that explores in more depth.
Let's be clear: Perry could well flame out in coming weeks. He could easily get into trouble for what he says. His tendency to shoot from the lip brings back uncomfortable memories of George W. There are those who insist that he could also get into trouble for what he may have done. His detractors in Texas are spreading the word that he plays on the edges and plays rough. His rivals are starting to dig as are out-of-state press. Will anything come of it? No one knows. Some in Texas have stirred up trouble against him for years, and he keeps winning.
Ironically, if Perry does flame out, he will have done Mitt Romney an enormous favor. Not only has Perry made Romney seem more mainstream as a candidate, but he has also lifted the quality of Romney's game -- Romney was much crisper and more animated last night than when he was on cruise control. If Romney now beats Perry for the nomination, he will have much better chops for the general election.
Still, those in the White House who are hoping that Perry is their opponent next fall should take a second look. As scary as he may seem to many, Perry could offer the tough, decisive leadership that a lot of people want in tough times.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Gergen.