Perry v. Romney Showdown Tonight

There may still be nine podiums on stage tonight when Fox News and Google convene the third GOP presidential candidate debate in Orlando. But everybody knows that’s seven podiums too many because (especially after Michele Bachmann’s recent drop in the polls) this race is now all about Mitt Romney and Rick Perry.

Romney landed an endorsement Monday from Missouri Senator Roy Blunt Jr., a former GOP House Whip, whose support represents, according to Mike Allen of Politico, “an emerging effort by establishment Republicans to coalesce around Mitt Romney in the face of the Rick Perry insurgency.” Perry nabbed an endorsement from Sam Brownback, the governor of Kansas and former Senator.

Perry continues to work his appeal to religious conservatives, dancing with the folks who brought him this far. (As Sarah Posner reported here at RD Tuesday, Perry appointed as co-chairs of his Florida campaign notable evangelical Christians including John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council, he who claimed that Mitt Romney was “not Mormon enough”—a remark that drew nationwide laughter from actual Mormons.)

What if Perry gets evangelical Christian conservatives, the Tea Party, and the South—although not without a fight and not by decisive margins? Can Romney still win? Polls from South Carolina this week show he’s only up by 3 points over Romney. (Even in Texas, Perry’s approval ratings are only 45%.)

Romney gets GOP elites and establishment, the Northeast, the West, independents (in open primary states), and everyone who has the foresight to worry about electability in a general election. He also may be able to claim senior citizens, if Perry’s comparison of Social Security to  “Ponzi scheme” continue to play, although a new poll shows 52% of Florida Republicans agree with him.

If Romney wins New Hampshire, Florida, and Nevada, the question on which the longer-haul primary will hang seems to be this: can a candidate win the GOP nomination without a winning a majority of evangelical Christian conservatives? What can Romney do to overcome his disadvantage among religious conservatives as a perceived social moderate and a Mormon?

Some data suggests that Perry is polling behind Romney among women voters in general, although there doesn’t seem to be a solid body of public data yet on how the candidates match up among likely Republican female voters.

Could gender be an angle Romney works to overcome the Mormon handicap? Is it time to roll out the Anne Romney express?

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