Tea partiers and Christian conservatives eager to see Rick Perry in the GOP presidential fray should be careful what they wish for, because Mitt Romney stands to benefit most.
Strategists speculate that Perry would drain support from U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a favorite of the religious right who has been surging in the polls. By splintering social conservatives, the Texas governor could end up solidifying Romney's position as the party's front-runner.
"Perry's entry splits the conservative/tea party vote and could benefit Romney," GOP strategist Roger Stone said from Miami Beach.
That short-term gain could be long-term pain for Republicans desperately seeking to retake the White House.
Anthony Verdugo, head of the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition, said, "Michele Bachmann has the inside track among Christian conservatives. However, if Perry jumps in, it will be his to lose."
Verdugo said Perry has "formidable advantages" both as the nation's longest-serving governor and as a frequent participant at politically oriented prayer breakfasts.
"These factors contribute to name recognition and awareness, as well as the fact that there are lots of deep political pockets in Texas," Verdugo said.
John Stemberger, of the Florida Family Policy Council, said, "Based upon my travels around the state, social conservatives in Florida are excited about Michele Bachmann first and Rick Perry second.
"If Perry gets in -- and I have reason to believe he will -- it will be interesting to see how the two of them share the support of those committed to our core issues of life, marriage, family and religious liberty," said Stemberger, an Orlando attorney.
It is unclear if Perry's hat will be in the ring by the time straw polls are conducted in Iowa and at Florida's Presidency 5 event this summer.
"If Bachmann becomes the 'Mike Huckabee' of the race and wins Iowa's straw poll and then the caucus itself, she could hold her strength into Florida," Stemberger predicted.
"On the other hand, Rick Perry could also end up being a political locomotive when he gets in and immediately becomes the 'Not Romney' candidate," he said.
Self-identified "evangelicals," who constitute up to a quarter of Republican voters, remain wary of Romney, a Mormon. Tea party conservatives also are lukewarm about the former Massachusetts governor whose signature achievement was the passage of a state health-care program that became the forerunner of Obamacare.
Yet a GOP field crowded on the right by Bachmann, Perry and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul could dilute the religious/tea party coalition and clear the way for Romney's nomination.
If Romney gains the upper hand in the primaries, if only by a plurality, the backlash from the religious right could be furious. Still more candidates, notably Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, could enter the race and further stir the political pot.
A preview of a Republican holy war comes from evangelical Warren Cole Smith, who dissected Romney's religion from the perspective of Christian conservatives.
"I start with the understanding that Mormonism is not orthodox, biblical Christianity. If this understanding is true, then the promotion of Mormonism would be to promote a false religion.
"It is inconceivable to me that electing a Mormon to the world's most powerful political office would not dramatically raise the profile and positive perception of Mormonism. That is why I cannot in good conscience vote for Romney, despite agreeing with him on a good many social and fiscal issues," writes Smith, associate publisher of the evangelical World Magazine.
"Romney's strategy has been to talk about 'values' and dodge questions about religion, as if they were somehow unrelated. He hopes that as America accepted John Kennedy's Catholicism, so too will America accept his Mormonism. But Kennedy gave a famous speech to the Houston Baptists about religion that explained his views and calmed concerns. Romney's problem is that if he really believes what the Mormon Church believes, he dare not make that speech.
"The American people will say, 'Really? Are you kidding me?' Or, if he says he doesn't believe what the Mormon Church teaches, fellow Mormons will feel betrayed and even those who have trouble with the Mormon Church will nonetheless wonder about a man who can't stand up for his own."
Remember that Smith is a self-professed conservative. Tough as his words are, a Romney-led GOP will face a far more hostile crowd in the general election.
Ominously for Romney (or fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman), polls show that Democrats and secular independents -- who constitute a near-majority of the electorate -- are even less likely than evangelicals to vote for a Mormon president.
Like it or not, the LDS faith remains contentious, controversial and wholly unprotected by today's political correctness. Doubly troubling, Romney's corporate pedigree makes him decidedly distasteful to many tea partiers whose ranks overlap with social conservatives.
That reality was hammered home Thursday by a Space Coast Tea Party straw poll that showed Bachmann and Palin far in front of the Republican field while Romney barely registered a pulse.
If Romney manages to divide and conquer the Christian right to win the GOP nomination, evangelicals may not be inclined to turn the other cheek in November. The same kind of party split that sank "maverick" John McCain's campaign in the fall of 2008 could doom Republicans again in 2012.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or (772) 559-4719.