Charlie Neibergall, Pool, Associated Press
AMES, Iowa — The biggest development of the Republican presidential campaign on Thursday happened in Austin, Texas — 1,000 miles from the leadoff caucus state where GOP front-runner Mitt Romney and seven of his opponents squared off ahead of an important test vote this weekend.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry sent word that he was running for the GOP nomination, casting a shadow over the debate and threatening to upend the race.
Back in Iowa, Romney emerged unscathed with his leader-of-the-pack status intact after two feisty hours; his two Minnesota rivals — Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty — sparred repeatedly as each sought advantage ahead of Saturday's Iowa straw poll.
Overall, the dynamics of the campaign did not change with a single debate. And they may not change when Saturday's straw poll results are announced.
But the race could well change in the coming days as Perry dives into it.
The Texan may pose the biggest threat yet to Romney.
Conservatives who make up the core of the GOP primary base view Romney skeptically on cultural issues, and he hasn't been able to establish himself as the heavy favorite for the nomination even though he's spent months promoting his background as a businessman and claiming that he alone has the know-how to create jobs to pull the country out of a period of high unemployment, rampant foreclosures and tumultuous financial markets.
The Republican establishment has a lackluster view of Romney's candidacy, leading deep-pocketed donors across the country to look for more candidates to draft into the race who could bridge the historical tension between the party's social and economic wings. They couldn't convince former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to run. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly refused, too. And Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels declined overtures as well.
He is credible on issues social conservatives care about and sent a strong message to evangelicals last weekend by hosting a national prayer rally in Houston that drew roughly 30,000 Christians. He also has overseen a period of job growth in his state, making Texas one of the few states in the country that have posted economic gains and giving him the opportunity to challenge Romney's pitch as the jobs candidate.
Iowa, with its strong base of evangelical voters, may be tailor-made for Perry. He was making his first trip to the state Sunday, a day after formally announcing his candidacy in South Carolina and New Hampshire — just as Iowa straw poll votes are being cast.
A caucus campaign by the Texan could force Romney to retool his strategy of downplaying the state — which he lost during his first run in 2008 after investing heavily — in favor of friendlier ground elsewhere.
"Perry hasn't shown up in the rodeo yet, but it looks like a Romney-Perry race," Republican strategist Jim Dyke said.
That may be a bit premature.
Perry is entering the race months after other candidates and Romney has a multimillion-dollar head start in fundraising.
Also, there still are at least five months before Iowa's precinct caucuses that kick off the winter-to-summer GOP nomination season, and there still are several unknowns, including whether former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ends up running. She was making a last-minute visit to the Iowa State Fair for Friday, reviving talk of a potential candidacy on the eve of the straw poll at Iowa State University. The straw poll could winnow the GOP field and indicate which candidate has the strongest get-out-the-vote operation.
This is turning out to be the most consequential week yet in the 2012 Republican presidential nomination fight — but not because of anything that happened at the debate.
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