Ross Douthat has a fun post today comparing Rick Perry to Howard Dean in his 2004 campaign. Best point: “One interesting quality that Perry has in common with Dean, and which last night’s various back-and-forths brought out, is the extent to which both his national profile and his personal affect are much more ideological than his actual gubernatorial record.”

I think that’s correct, and worth some thought.

Here’s the thing. What Dean meant for the Democrats in 2004 wasn’t just that, as Douthat says, his public persona on the campaign trail…seemed to embody all the stereotypes associated with blue state liberals. What mattered a lot more was that he was pure and clean on the one issue that passionate Democratic activists cared the most about that year: Iraq. Many liberals that year — well, not that year, but 2003 — were basically very willing to overlook the plain and obvious fact that Dean wasn’t really much of a liberal.

Perry’s situation is a bit different. The thing about Republican primary voters and even activists this year is that there’s nothing even remotely equivalent to Iraq as an issue. To make it perhaps overly speculative, my guess is that what Republicans are looking for, and why Perry jumped out to such a strong start, is much more basic: a fully qualified candidate who actually shares their position on issues. After all, it’s been so long since they’ve had one. 2008 was full of candidates who had some grievous flaw or another, and most of 2012 is more of the same.

Perhaps that will mean that Perry is especially vulnerable to what relatively small deviations from conservative doctrine that Mitt Romney and other opponents can trump up. Or perhaps no one will care, and his cultural strengths will win out. Or: perhaps what really matters here is the difference between the two situations. In 2004, Howard Dean was one of a number of fully qualified Democratic contenders, with at least a couple of them (Kerry and Edwards) fully acceptable, if not exciting, to virtually every party group and constituency. This time around, Perry is one of at best two fully qualified Republican candidates, and he’s facing someone who isn’t really trusted by large segments of the party. In other words, while I do think that Douthat has a point, the truth is that Perry makes sense as a nominee (or at least as a very strong candidate) in a way that Dean never did. Or: Perry has every possibility of just inheriting the nomination by default, as long as he can convince most party actors that he’s reasonably safe. Howard Dean never had a chance at that.

Truth is, I have no predication at all about whether Perry or Romney will wind up the GOP nominee. But it is shaping up as a fascinating race — although to tell the truth I suppose I’ve found each nomination fight since I’ve been following this stuff fascinating. Except I suppose for Gore/Bradley 2000.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.