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This week’s update on the Republican presidential field

Michele Bachmann wins the Iowa straw poll—and loses a political news cycle when Tim Pawlenty drops out and Rick Perry enters the race. It’s certainly been a monumental week for the Republican presidential field. Long-time frontrunner Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann are enduring the first significant challenges to their leads, the field continues to be shaken up, and speculation and rumors continue to abound over Sarah Palin’s potential candidacy. In the meantime, President Obama has embarked on a bus tour of Iowa in an attempt to detract attention from the Republican race. So, what does the 2012 presidential field really look like now?

First, let’s examine the significance of the Iowa straw poll. The people who vote in early polls like this represent the radical fringes of the Republican party, and it should be remembered that these
polls are not at all indicative of a candidate’s actual performance in the primaries. For comparison’s sake, in 2007, John McCain placed tenth in this very same poll. However, the Iowa straw poll is useful in that it generates media attention and speculation, and therefore also generates valuable fundraising for the candidates who perform well.

In light of the relative triviality of this poll, some might find Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race surprising, but in truth, this news was a long time coming. Pawlenty’s presidential campaign never
really got off the ground, and his candidacy was further hampered by the similarities he shared with Bachmann. Both candidates hail from Minnesota, are proud standard-bearers for the Tea Party, and have analogous platforms. Pawlenty’s name recognition nationwide pales in comparison to Bachmann, and once she declared her candidacy, Pawlenty never stood a chance.

What does Rick Perry’s official candidacy mean for the Republican field? Like Pawlenty’s withdrawal, Perry’s declaration of candidacy was a long time coming. The Texas governor has increasingly gained prominence on the national stage, most recently with his pro-death penalty stance and refusal to endorse the debt ceiling deal. In comparison to Romney, Perry is not afraid to mince his words, and his credibility as governor makes him Romney’s biggest threat.

Looking ahead to the final race, it’s clear that the economy will be the biggest (and potentially deciding) issue for most American voters. In that respect, Obama’s weakness is Perry’s biggest strength.
On the campaign trail, the Texas governor frequently cites his impressive record of job creation. Perry’s biggest weakness will be the inevitable comparisons to former Texas governor and President George W. Bush, but if he can overcome that in the months leading up to the Republican primary, Perry remains a strong contender.

Finally, let’s examine the field overall. Even if Newt Gingrich can withstand the turmoil within his own campaign, the damage has been done, and a Gingrich victory is a long shot. Ron Paul continues to be a perennial cult hero, but until he is taken seriously by the mainstream media, he will never become more than a Texas congressman. After the Iowa poll, Rick Santorum, Jon Huntsman, and Herman Cain are barely afterthoughts. It’s possible that these candidates could turn their campaigns around and become serious contenders, but at this point, that seems unlikely. In the meantime, the
Republican field has a top three: Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry.