Perry Set to Usurp Romney And Claim Frontrunner Mantle

The press have been describing former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination since at least early last year. That may be coming to an end, though, as Rick Perry, the free-wheeling Texas governor who entered the race with a bang just a couple of weeks ago, has surged to the front of the pack in polls and grassroots enthusiasm.

Two new polls show him with a double digit lead among all Republican voters, and they show a three-way race between Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Mitt Romney going the Texan’s way as well. From PPP:

In PPP’s first national poll since Rick Perry’s official entry into the Presidential race he’s jumped out to a double digit advantage. Perry’s at 33% to 20% for Mitt Romney, 16% for Michele Bachmann, 8% for Newt Gingrich, 6% for Herman Cain and Ron Paul, 4% for Rick Santorum, and 3% for Jon Huntsman.

Conservative voters have been looking for a candidate that they can rally around and Perry’s filling that role. Romney continues to lead with the small portion of voters describing themselves as moderates at 27% to 20% for Bachmann and 15% for Perry. But Perry gets stronger and stronger as you move across the ideological spectrum. With ‘somewhat conservative’ voters Perry leads by 15 points with 38% to Romney’s 23% and Bachmann’s 11%. And with ‘very conservative’ voters the advantage expands to 22 points with him at 40% to 18% for Bachmann and 14% for Romney.

“I think even Rick Perry would acknowledge that there’s still a lot of work to do. You’ve got a very significant hill to climb with the infrastructure and fundraising that Romney’s done,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran Florida-based GOP media consultant and strategist.

“However, traveling around the country, especially in swing states, I’m seeing on the ground a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for Rick Perry. For a lot of Republicans Mitt Romney felt like an arranged marriage, and they’d marry Rick Perry for love.”

He said Perry hasn’t become the favorite yet, per se, but that the nature of the calendar favored him more than some have noticed.

“We like to put people through the ringer in the primary. He’ll get put through the ringer like everyone else. The next major event that’s on the schedule that Republicans are really going to pay attention to is in Florida, the Fox News debate and the straw poll. This is 3,500 of the most important activists and fundraisers [in the state]. And [it will be the] first significant state where Republicans are gonna rack up delegates.

“Even if we went early [in the primary calendar] and the RNC cut our delegates in half, Florida will still have more delegates than Iowa, NH, and SC combined. The sense we get here is it’s gonna be a very big fight between Romney and Perry in Florida. Romney has some good people with him, but I sense at the grassroots that Perry has exploded onto the scene very dramatically and very swiftly and there’s a sense that he presses some of the buttons that they really want to have pressed.”

What remains to be seen is whether frontrunner status brings such increased scrutiny to Perry’s record — especially on executions — as well as questions about his electability, that his meteoric rise is followed by a plateau or drop-off in support.

Follow National Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny

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