This has been a consequential week for the GOP presidential race. The three leading contenders benefited from events and each now faces new challenges.
It doesn't matter that Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll by only 152 votes over Ron Paul, or that only 17,000 Iowans voted. By winning she gained bragging rights, momentum, invitations to all five major Sunday talk programs, and maybe even a fund-raising bump.
Now the Iowa front-runner (always a precarious position), she must deepen her organization to win the state's February caucuses and back up her claim to be "the tip of the spear," an effective leader in Congress against President Obama's policies.
Folksy and passionate, Rick Perry entered the race Saturday adroitly, emphasizing Texas's record of job creation. By leaking the decision to throw his hat in the ring on Thursday, he dominated news coverage the day before and the day of the straw poll, despite not participating in it. He'll now enjoy a significant bump in the polls. Will he keep it, or lose it as both Herman Cain and Donald Trump did?
The answer depends in part on how Gov. Perry adjusts to the greater scrutiny a presidential bid always involves. He's learning it isn't easy. Claiming it would be "almost treasonous" for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to print "more money between now and the election" may have seemed a good idea when Mr. Perry said it in an Iowa backyard on Monday. But he must have later realized that the charge of treason was unpresidential and detracted from his point. Mr. Perry has refused to disavow his attack, but he also (wisely) didn't repeat it. New presidential candidates probably get a mulligan. This was Mr. Perry's.
Mitt Romney's substantive and animated debate performance helped him end the week still ahead in most polls, despite taking a pass on the straw poll. But his position is fragile. His challenges remain the Massachusetts health-care law he signed while he was governor, and the level of enthusiasm of Republicans for their nominal front-runner. He'll attempt to handle both by making policy speeches after Labor Day, attacking the Obama record and laying out his blueprint for jobs and recovery.
The current GOP race is the most fluid of any I have ever observed. Most Republicans are still uncommitted. Desperate to beat Mr. Obama, they want to make certain the GOP picks the right (read: most electable) candidate.
This means Republicans are observing the race as political analysts and as voters. Candidates will be graded on the quality of their appearances and ads, their fund-raising strength, the depth of their organization, and their ability to create that most elusive of political treasures, "buzz."
Because primaries tend to become binary contests, Mrs. Bachmann and Mr. Perry will now likely compete to be the "Not Romney" candidate. They can achieve dominance by attacking each other, attacking Mr. Romney, or attacking Mr. Obama while hyping their own records and values. The smartest course is the last.
The first round of this "Not Romney" contest was last Sunday night in Iowa and Mr. Perry won it. He showed up early at the Black Hawk County GOP dinner and spent hours shaking every hand, going from table to table posing for pictures. Mrs. Bachmann sat in her bus outside, swept into the hall just before speaking, and then awkwardly stood on stage signing T-shirts for the crowd below. She probably won't do that again.
While the GOP has a good field of a dozen contenders, others may get in. They have time: The first filing deadline is Oct. 14 for the Michigan primary. After that, candidates start losing opportunities. Sarah Palin has a jam-packed Labor Day week schedule that looks suspiciously like a candidate's. And rumors abound that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan are under pressure from activists and donors to run. If any of these three run, they would immediately recast the race.
As fluid and volatile as the GOP field is, Republicans are energized. Democrats are increasingly sullen and depressed. Mr. Obama is struggling with weak growth, high joblessness, a terrible housing market, and collapsing consumer and business confidence. Worse, the president has no concept for how to respond, and the public senses this.
Twice since Saturday, Mr. Obama's approval rating in the Gallup daily tracking poll has hit 39%, his lowest mark so far. No president in more than 50 years has been re-elected with approval ratings so low at this point in his term. The odds are that Harry Truman's improbable come-from-behind victory in 1948 won't be matched anytime soon.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 17, 2011.