09/28/2011 05:07 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

After Perry's Stumble, a GOP Divided

Even before his devastating loss in the much-ballyhooed Florida "straw poll" last weekend -- to, of all people, pizza magnate Herman Cain -- there were growing doubts about the viability of Texas governor Rick Perry's fledgling campaign for the Republican nomination.

The first blast of criticism came from the GOP's center-right establishment, and from liberal pundits: Would Perry's over-the-top attacks on Social Security (calling it a "Ponzi scheme") -- and his gruff and bombastic style -- alienate mainstream voters, rendering him less "electable" than his chief rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney?

The polls have certainly suggested as much. In head-to-head match-ups, Perry has consistently trailed President Obama by 5-7 points, while Romney has either led or tied the president. The reason: Romney's decisive edge over Perry -- and in some cases, over Obama, too -- among self-described "independents," the 35-40% of the electorate that decides most elections.

But now, thanks to the last two GOP debates, and Cain's stunning victory, it's clear that doubts about Perry are no longer confined to moderates. Why? Immigration, mainly. Perry, despite his public opposition to "amnesty," has staunchly defended his view that illegal immigrants should receive in-state tuition benefits to attend college, a view that is complete anathema to GOP "restrictionists" who want all illegals deported, and whose grassroots allies are currently fighting Texas-style immigration bills elsewhere.

Some GOP moderates, including former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, share Perry's nuanced views on immigration. But as the leading "conservative" in the race, Perry's stance on tuition benefits won't woo moderate voters who already lean towards Romney but could well kill him with Tea Partiers who have hitherto favored him by a wide margin. Romney, sensing a real opening, is harping on the issue every chance he gets, and he's already halved Perry's double-digit lead among all GOP voters, while extending his massive polling lead in New Hampshire and even pulling nearly even again with Perry in South Carolina, the GOP's traditional bellwether state.

In addition to Romney, the biggest beneficiaries of the Perry stumble appear to be the two Georgians: Cain, of course, who'd been all but written off as a candidate after a dazzling performance in the first GOP debate in New Hampshire last May, and Newt Gingrich, who just made it to third place -- and double-digits -- in the latest national poll of GOP voters.

Cain, a political neophyte, remains an emotional favorite with some of the most engaged GOP base voters -- consistently topping the other candidates on what Gallup calls its "positive intensity" scale. And Gingrich, who has virtually no campaign organization to speak of at this point -- and nothing to lose -- has emerged as something of an elder party statesman. He's constantly reminding his colleagues that they agree on the core issue -- defeating President Obama -- while castigating debate questioners for trying to "divide" the GOP field -- remarks that have earned him loud and sustained applause.

Of course, no one thinks Cain or Gingrich has a realistic shot at the GOP nomination, but each may be hanging around in the hopes of capturing the beauty prize -- the VP slot. Right now, aside from Perry, they're the only two Southerners in the race. So, in the event that a Northerner like Romney or even Christie ends up the nominee, having a conservative Tea party firebrand -- and not coincidentally, an outspoken African-American -- like Cain -- or Gingrich, a former party insider with gravitas and brains as a running mate could help give the GOP ticket "balance."

A week ago, nearly all pundits, and most Republican insiders, had already concluded that the GOP contest was a "two-man race." But now it seems as wide open as ever. In fact, rumors continue to swirl around the intentions of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who's steadfastly denied for months that he's running, but who's reportedly under tremendous pressure from GOP donor "hold-outs" to throw his hat into the ring. Another huge question mark, of course, is Sarah Palin, who's been engaged in a political strip tease of sorts with the media and her own party for months over her plans. Palin's strident attacks on Perry beginning three weeks ago were instrumental in bringing greater scrutiny to his campaign, and they could well give her a fresh opening with Tea partiers disaffected from Perry. (And not just Tea partiers: the latest Marist poll shows her just 5 points behind President Obama, even leading the president among independents, a huge reversal from earlier polls.)

In the interim, though, the biggest beneficiary of the Perry stumble -- and the dampening effect it seems to have had on the entire GOP field -- could well be President Obama himself. Despite his declining "favorability" ratings, he's continuing to score high on the personal "likability" scale, much higher than any of the Republican candidates, including their just-fallen Texas "messiah." Given the state of the economy, and the public's deep disappointment with the direction of the country, you'd think that the GOP would be 15-20 points ahead of Obama by now, rather than still trailing, or at best, just even.

Which makes you wonder if Republicans really want to win, and if they can manage to find a candidate they can live with, whether they really know how.