Let Michelle Bachmann enjoy her Iowa straw poll squeaker. Like Ron Paul, come January 2012, she will be a non-factor. Has nothing to do with her wearing a skirt. If she flipped roles and experience with Tim Pawlenty I would be making the case that T-Paw is an air-head with no substantive leadership experience and that Bachmann is a potentially formidable candidate. (UPDATE–Looks like Pawlenty is pulling the plug based on his tepid reception in Iowa.)

But that’s not the case and, based on what we’ve seen this week, I remain convinced that five months from now the battle will boil down to Perry vs. Romney.

The crucial issue will remain the economy. Perry will sink like a stone if he persists in pushing or touting a social conservative agenda. Most Americans could care less about that nonsense. You know, “pecker” politics–abortion, gay marriage, and stem cells.

JOBS, JOBS, JOBS. That will be the issue. On the surface Perry appears to have a strong advantage. He will claim credit for creating 37% of the jobs during the Obama “recovery.” However, he has a tendency to speak and sound like George W. Bush and I’m not sure most Americans want to revisit that nightmare just to escape the horror show that is Obama.

Romney is running a smart campaign for now. He has avoided the mistakes he made in 2008. Back then he pandered relentless and was compared to a windmill spinning in a hurricane. He was going in all directions. Mormonism is still a bugaboo but, unless he starts doing public prayer meetings, will probably fade as an issue as he shows up in a variety of religious settings.

His Achilles Heel remains the Massachusetts health bill he championed. He will have to do a better job of explaining away that turd of a decision.

If you want a taste of what awaits Perry, check out Paul Begala’s opening salvo:

I first met Rick Perry in 1985. He was a Democratic freshman state rep, straight off the ranch in Haskell, Texas. He wore his jeans so tight, and, umm, adjusted himself so often that my fellow young legislative aides and I used to call him Crotch. Even among state representatives, even among Texas Aggies (graduates of this cute remedial school we have in Texas), Perry stood out for his modest intellectual gifts. Hell, he got a C in animal breeding. I have goats who got an A in that subject. But lack of brains has never been a hindrance in politics.

Privately the Obama team fears Romney more than Perry. I won’t get too excited about any candidate at this point. I will wait until September 2012. In the meantime all of the candidates still have time to make a name for themselves or set their own hair on fire.

Count me in the “competition” is good camp. The more they slug it out and battle the more hardened they will be for going up against the Chicago kid. I don’t discount the possibility, however, that continued deterioration in the economy could propel Obama to abandoning his second term bid. At that point the Dems would face a conundrum and might plead with Hillary to bear the banner. I give that only a 20% chance of happening, but it is in the realm of the possible.

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Larry C. Johnson is a former analyst at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who moved subsequently in 1989 to the U.S. Department of State, where he served four years as the deputy director for transportation security, antiterrorism assistance training, and special operations in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. He left government service in October 1993 and set up a consulting business. He currently is the co-owner and CEO of BERG Associates, LLC (Business Exposure Reduction Group) and is an expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, and crisis and risk management, and money laundering investigations. Johnson is the founder and main author of No Quarter, a weblog that addresses issues of terrorism and intelligence and politics. NoQuarterUSA was nominated as Best Political Blog of 2008.