Rick Perry-Mitt Romney Battle Far From Finished

Though they have flaws, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry are both still very much in the race.

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Everyone who's covering the GOP presidential primary needs to take a mood stabilizer. Keep the predictive powder dry. Chill the heck out. (I say this as a disinterested observer who loathes Gov. Rick Perry and former Gov. Mitt Romney for different reasons, but in equal measure.)

On the day he declared his candidacy, Perry had all but run away with the primary. Now he's toast.

Really?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Romney's vulnerability as a candidate is well-attested. The party establishment finds him drearily unappealing on a personal level, and the party base famously doesn't trust him.

And so the prevailing assumption seems to be that he's Humpty-Dumpty, waiting to be tipped over. Except that he's still propped up there, somewhat perilously, perhaps, but with all hairs in place. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty tried—haltingly—and failed. Rep. Michele Bachmann hasn't laid a glove on him. Former Gov. Sarah Palin apparently isn't brave enough to try.

It's this assumption that led to the hurried crowning of Perry as the undisputed frontrunner. Here, at last, was the credible alternative, the Fixer: a governor of a big state with a positive jobs record and a mean twang. But hold on. It turns out that he's not very bright and, on issues like HPV vaccination and immigration, he's a more conflicted character than the national press corps imagined.

[Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?]

Hold on again: Perry still leads the field!

According to a CNN poll taken after Thursday's debate, in which Perry's performance was unanimously declared a trainwreck, he still leads Romney by seven points (28 percent to 21 percent).

I'll be the first to admit I've misjudged this race at times. I still maintain that Mitt Romney is bad at politics—but it could be that the rest of field is that much worse.

My contention that the GOP base is not going to be bullied into backing the electable, establishment-approved horse is holding up a bit better. Hardcore GOPers aren't fleeing into Romney's arms just yet. Indeed there's good reason to believe Perry's current troubles owe more to unanticipated problems with the base than his deficiencies as a debater or a perception of unelectability.

[See photos of the GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail.]

For now, I'll be content to declare I have no idea which of these two will win this thing.

And neither does anyone else.

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