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Will it come down to Perry vs. Romney?

By Edward Morrissey, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Edward Morrissey: Michele Bachmann unlikely to take 2012 GOP nod despite straw poll win
  • He says Rick Perry eclipsed Bachmann in her hometown and Mitt Romney's in front in polls
  • But Romney lacks tea party enthusiasm of Bachmann and Perry, Morrissey says
  • Morrissey: Perry and Romney likely to win in big primaries, rest of GOP field will quickly recede

Editor's note: Edward Morrissey is a senior editor and correspondent for the conservative commentary website HotAir.com.

(CNN) -- Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa last weekend -- and that may be the last good news she gets for a while.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's entry into the race overshadowed her decidedly narrow victory in Ames and the candidate herself in her hometown a day later, and might just turn the GOP primary fight into a two-person race with Bachmann on the outside.

Let's start with the straw poll in which Bachmann was a clear favorite for a big win. Her campaign distributed 6,000 of the $30 tickets, the most of any competing Republican there. She was only able to convert 4,823 of those into votes though, barely edging out Ron Paul for the win by 150. Perry had no organization on the ground, and yet managed to get 718 write-in votes to finish ahead of Mitt Romney, whose name was on the ballot.

Nevertheless, although Bachmann won a good deal of the media's attention, most of that attention was focused on the entry of the Texas governor into the presidential mix. To start his campaign in high gear, Perry accepted an invitation from the Black Hawk County GOP to speak the next evening in Waterloo, Bachmann's hometown. Bachmann joined the local fundraiser, turning the event into a head-to-head match between the tea party favorite and honored daughter, and the Texas Johnny-come-lately. Bachmann clearly wanted to challenge Perry on her home turf.

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However, a funny thing happened in Waterloo: Perry got the better reception. He showed up early and mixed with the crowd, as did Rick Santorum, the former senator and fourth-place Ames finisher. Perry had dinner with a table of dazzled locals, but Bachmann didn't show until the end of the event, when she was scheduled to speak. Perry's speech generated a substantial amount of enthusiasm, where Bachmann received warm but subdued response.

It's dangerous to make too much out of one event at this stage of the primary season, but clearly Perry can fire up the party faithful as much as Bachmann can, even in her hometown. Given the dynamics of this race, that's bad news for the congresswoman.

Throughout this early part of the race, Romney has maintained consistent if unimpressive polling leads in almost all surveys. Given his status as the runner-up in 2008, he has an inside track to the nomination.

Republicans have a long history of nominating the next in line for the ticket, with a few exceptions, George W. Bush being the most recent. John McCain finished second to Bush in 2000 and even with a complete campaign meltdown in 2007 managed to win the nomination in 2008. Romney's money advantage -- both personal and in fundraising -- makes him formidable as a candidate to carry on that tradition.

However, Romney has little credibility with the grass-roots conservatives who helped turn 2010 into a massive Republican victory in the House. Tea party activists have no affection for the man they blame in part for greasing the skids for "Obamacare" with Romney's health-care mandate in Massachusetts. They want a firebrand conservative in the race as the not-Romney, much as the former Massachusetts governor ended up being the not-McCain that conservatives backed by default in the final stages of the 2008 primary campaign.

Until Perry's entry, Bachmann was the only candidate who could legitimately make that claim. Bachmann has tirelessly worked to organize and promote the tea party and has championed their causes in Congress. She shot up in the polls, while fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty languished and eventually withdrew, and surpassed other grass-roots-fueled candidates such as Herman Cain and even Paul to move near Romney -- until Perry entered the race.

Perry won't claim the same level of tea party loyalty as Bachmann. He has too much record as governor in Texas to have the kind of purity Bachmann can boast. But Bachmann lacks executive experience and any record of legislative accomplishment, while Perry has put conservative principles to work in Texas. He also owns the jobs issue, which will be central to the 2012 general election.

Under his administration, Texas has added more net jobs in the last three years than most of the other states combined. Bachmann can talk about jobs and the economy in conceptual terms, but Perry can talk about his actions and the concrete results they produced, which will be a powerful argument for unseating President Barack Obama in 15 months.

The question then becomes whether the grass roots can buy Perry as tea party enough to become the not-Romney in the election. Perry's reception in Waterloo shows he can make that argument to the party's base and do so without carrying Bachmann's baggage of inexperience and thin record.

If he can do that throughout Iowa as well as he did in Waterloo, that sets up a scenario where Perry ends up leading the polling in Iowa and presumably South Carolina, leaving Romney to hold New Hampshire -- and leaving the rest of the field to become much less relevant in a hurry.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward Morrissey.