A few weeks ago, President Obama's most likely scenario for re-election was facing a moderate Republican who had made few controversial remarks in his years in public life and could easily cast himself as a business-focused technocrat.
But that potential opponent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is no longer the heavy favorite to win the GOP nomination. And the emergence of Texas Gov. Rick Perry could be the best thing to happen to the president's re-election prospects in months.
For all of Romney's faults, from a lack of charisma to a reputation for flip-flopping, he has completely centered his campaign on Obama's most obvious weakness: the terrible performance of the economy under the president's leadership. Romney has essentially said nothing interesting or controversial on any other major issue, but instead has spent all of his time on the campaign trail blasting Obama for the high budget deficit and increased unemployment rate under his leadership.
This approach, reminiscent of how Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992, could be a winner at a time when the electorate, particularly the critical bloc of independent voters, is obsessed with the economy.
Perry, on the other hand, has a much greater visceral appeal to conservatives, but one that brings more risks in winning the middle. He talks tough, as he showed earlier this week by effectively accusing Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of treason.
He's openly religious and willing to talk about his opposition to gay marriage and other cultural issues. And he has adopted the Tea Party's positions, including its sharply anti-government rhetoric, promising Saturday in his announcement speech to work "every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I possibly can."
If Perry won the nomination, the contest between him and Obama would not simply be one in which the Republican railed against the president's record on the economy and Obama had little grounds on which to attack the Republican. Unlike Romney as candidate, a Perry candidacy would allow Obama's team to highlight the Texas governor's more controversial history: remarks about Texas seceding from the union, his push to require sixth-graders to get vaccines for cervical cancer, his links to George W. Bush, his description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme." And Perry, as illustrated by his remarks since he got into the race, doesn't simply want to have an election on Obama's record; he wants a broad debate about the overall role of the federal government.
This type of philosophical fight could help the president. In a recent piece in Politico, his aides had said they would try to highlight Romney's "weirdness" if he were the nominee. But candidate Obama, who prefers high-minded debate about policy over direct attacks on opponents, no doubt would struggle to execute such a strategy and would do much better articulating why he opposes Perry's vision for a much smaller federal government.
There's no guarantee that Perry will win the Republican nomination. But a high-profile conservative alternative might have another benefit for the White House: forcing Romney to the right.
The former Massachusetts governor had been content to let ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) fight it out for the most conservative Republican voters, particularly in Iowa, while he targeted the other segments of the Republican electorate. Romney had refused to sign some of the pledges that conservative groups had circulated, such as one from an Iowa group called the Family Leader mandating that Republicans say that they would oppose gay marriage and promise "personal fidelity to my spouse." (The pledge also initially said, incorrectly, that "a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.")
A race against Perry, who will be well-funded and has establishment support that Bachmann lacks, could require Romney to take some positions that would be unpalatable in the general election.
Of course, there is one big caveat: If the economy continues to slump as it is now, it may be impossible for Obama to win under any circumstances. Perry could cite his record of creating jobs in Texas, and Romney his experience running a venture capital firm.
But assuming that the economic situation in the U.S. does not get dramatically worse, Obama will have a set of accomplishments — from health care reform to the stimulus bill — that divide voters along party lines: Democrats like them; Republicans oppose them. The Republican candidates will try to cast Obama's four years as a disaster, and he will have to say why a Romney or Perry presidency would be much worse.
To win, he will have to run a much more negative campaign than in 2008, when he constantly talked about the "audacity of hope." For such a race, Perry would be a more ideal opponent than Romney.
Perry Bacon Jr. is a national reporter for the Washington Post.