Rick Perry
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has a large advantage among Republican primary voters, according to four recent polls. Reuters

A Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday was the fourth survey in less than two weeks to show Rick Perry at the front of the Republican presidential pack. Among Republican primary voters, the percentages were as follows (asterisks denote a candidate who has not formally entered the race). Other candidates, like Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum, polled in the low single digits:

  • 24 for Rick Perry
  • 18 for Mitt Romney
  • 11 for Sarah Palin*
  • 10 for Michele Bachmann
  • 9 for Ron Paul

This was a smaller margin of victory for Perry, the three-term governor of Texas, than he had in recent CNN, Gallup and PPP surveys, all of which showed him with double-digit leads over Romney. For example, the CNN poll showed:

  • 27 for Rick Perry
  • 14 for Mitt Romney
  • 10 for Sarah Palin*
  • 9 for Michele Bachmann
  • 9 for Rudolph Giuliani*
  • 6 for Newt Gingrich
  • 6 for Ron Paul

However, the margin Quinnipiac found is still significant, and it is one more piece of evidence that, despite Perry's late entrance into the race, he has become the clear frontrunner.

Perry's rise to the top of the polls just two weeks after declaring his candidacy is remarkable, but the question is whether he can maintain his edge. It would not be unusual for a late-entering candidate to open his campaign with a bang but fade by the time the primaries actually started, which is what happened to Democrat Wesley Clark in 2004 and Republican Fred Thompson in 2008. (Don't remember them? Well, that's the point.)

But Perry holds an advantage in that none of his competitors have really struck a chord with a wide range of voters. Some, like Romney and ex-candidate Tim Pawlenty, who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll, have suffered from a lack of a compelling message beyond contrasting themselves to President Obama. Others, like Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul and the single-digit-polling Rick Santorum, have messages that are compelling but invigorate only a small portion of the electorate while alienating others.

In this respect, the news for Romney and Bachmann is even worse than the recent poll results indicate.

Before Perry entered the race, Bachmann tended to attract Tea Partiers and other very right-wing voters, while Romney attracted more center-right voters, even though he made a great effort to cast himself as a steadfast conservative. Pundits noted that, if either Romney or Bachmann were to win the Republican nomination, they would be hard-pressed to gain support in the general election from the other wing of their own party.

Perry, on the other hand, is collecting a great deal of support from both wings. He got more votes in the CNN poll from people who identified themselves as Tea Partiers than from those who did not, but he beat Romney among non-Tea Partiers as well. His supporters tend to be older and have higher incomes, according to CNN, but he also tops the list, albeit by smaller margins, among lower-income Republicans and those under 50 years old. That's bad news for his opponents, none of whom are likely to match his ideological or demographic breadth of support.

In terms of electability, then, Rick Perry may be the ideal Republican candidate.

Republican voters have grown increasingly conservative in the past year or so, and despite its plummeting popularity ratings, the Tea Party still wields a lot of influence within the party. This trend to the right makes things very difficult for center-right candidates, however hard they try to emphasize their conservative principles. Romney, for one, has been widely disparaged for his support of health care reform as governor of Massachusetts, and Jon Huntsman, who has campaigned on a platform of moderation and bipartisanship, is polling miserably. But on the other end of the ideological spectrum, Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann is also running into trouble with voters who find her platform too extreme, as well as those who agree with her positions but fear she is too polarizing to win against President Obama.

Objectively, Perry is highly conservative. In the scheme of 2008's Republican Party, he would have been well to the right of most of his competitors and probably deemed unelectable as a result. But in 2012's Republican Party, the status quo has moved so far to the right that many voters are now seeing Perry as the best of both worlds: a candidate with extensive governing experience and an untarnished conservative record, but who has the ability to appeal to voters outside his base as well. He is also a highly effective campaigner, as evidenced by the fact that he has never lost an election in his 27-year political career: a remarkable feat.

Defeating Barack Obama will be a challenge even for him, and even given Obama's low poll numbers. But of all the candidates out there, Rick Perry may be Republicans' best bet if they want to win next November.