Texas Gov. Rick Perry moved decisively into the lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday.
The poll, conducted Aug. 17-21, showed Perry supported by 29 percent of Republican primary voters, 12 points ahead of Mitt Romney's 17 percent.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Rep. Ron Paul came in at 10 percent, with businessman Herman Cain receiving four percent and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum each receiving three percent.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has tried to carve out a niche as a moderate candidate willing to work with ideological opponents, continued to trail the pack with one percent of the vote, underscoring how conservative the Republican electorate has become.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who ran an unsuccessful campaign in the 2008 Republican presidential primaries, had long been considered the frontrunner for the nomination this time around, but it seems that may be changing.
Perry officially entered the race just last week, so for him to have surged to the front of the pack already is a remarkable feat.
Perry's short candidacy has already been controversial. Last week, he said it would be treasonous for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to print more money in advance of next November's election, and commentators didn't miss the point that treason is a capital crime.
Earlier in August, Perry led a prayer rally in Houston and, as The New York Times described it, called on Jesus to bless and guide the nation's military and political leaders and 'those who cannot see the light in the midst of all the darkness.' His critics were quick to jump on what they saw as an implicit violation of the separation of church and state.
Nonetheless, his quick rise in the polls spells trouble not only for Romney, but also for Bachmann, a Tea Party leader who had essentially cornered the most conservative portion of the Republican electorate until Perry came around.
With the new Gallup results, Perry could threaten Bachmann for control of that constituency -- and given that Bachmann is unlikely to gain a strong foothold among more moderate Republicans, a Perry coup could end her presidential ambitions entirely.
Although Bachmann hadn't been leading the race, Perry's entry might even be more damaging to her campaign than to Romney's. Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll earlier this month, a victory that tends to be indicative of support among more conservative voters, but that was before Perry declared his candidacy.
Now Bachmann has a formidable opponent as the candidate of choice of staunch-conservative and religious-right voters, and because she and Perry have similar positions on many key issues, she will probably find it more difficult than Romney will to distinguish herself ideologically from Perry and so to maintain a niche.
Romney faces a different challenge. Most evidence points to a trend toward more right-wing candidates, and because of his moderate record as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has had to play catch-up with those voters.
While Perry and Bachmann boast extensive right-wing credentials and can compete for the title of most unwavering conservative, Romney has had to spend half his time running from the policies he promoted as governor: namely the Massachusetts health care reform plan, in which conservative voters see uncomfortable similarities to President Obama's reform plan.
Romney hasn't run as a moderate, but in this climate, Republican voters might see even him as too centrist. If the trend toward the right continues, then, Perry and Bachmann may find themselves locked in a battle for the nomination, with Romney relegated to the sidelines and all pretense of moderation abandoned.
Perry might hold an edge in that battle. If Wednesday's poll numbers show Republicans continuing to shift rightward, they also indicate dissatisfaction with the Tea Party's particular brand of conservatism. The Tea Party's national popularity decreased markedly after the debt-ceiling crisis, and if Bachmann can't find more support among right-wing voters who aren't Tea Partiers, she will be hard-pressed to win the nomination, much less the general election.
However, it remains to be seen whether Perry could win next November. President Obama's current poll numbers are some of the lowest of his presidency, but he still has the incumbent's advantage, and the extremely conservative rhetoric that's seemingly needed to win the Republican nomination may play poorly with independent voters.
It seems increasingly certain that the nominee will be ideologically polarizing -- even marginally moderate candidates like Romney are being cast aside, and the poll numbers for actual center-right candidates like Huntsman are almost nonexistent -- but when it comes to the general election, a Romney type would probably have a better shot than Perry or Bachmann. The Republicans' race to the right may well prove to be counterproductive.