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Getting close to game time even now

It's political preseason. Early predictions about performance, issues, swing votes, turnouts, independents, debates, states-in-play, etc., must be tempered by the political equivalent of "injuries" -- such as gaffes or scandals -- and "sleepers emerging." Wasn't President Barack Obama a sleeper just four years ago?

So any presidential punditry between now and the end of this year must be placed somewhere between fantasy league and fan forum status, with some experienced handicapping thrown in.

Still, certain trends, like training-camp patterns, are emerging with such strength that they need to be noted. The clearest such "preseason surprise" is the emergence of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as the front-runner for the Republican nomination. He has seized a double-digit lead in national GOP primary polls after being in the race for only a couple of weeks.

Perry's lead doesn't appear to be a "third-string phantom" -- a great performance by a third-stringer in the fourth quarter against other third-stringers, none of whom has a chance to make the team. We've seen such performances in presidential primaries past, when an unexpected candidate will win a state's primary, be touted for a week, then in next primary fall hard into the also-rans.

Rather, Perry's strength seems solid and based on measurable, long-term reasons. A new Economist/YouGov poll is the third this preseason showing Perry leading the Republican presidential field. That's significant. Perry's support is not simply regional or based on large states like Texas. He's strong north of the Mason-Dixon and out West. A recent Gallup poll confirms this, and it also shows Perry leading.

What's happening? How did Perry vault over candidates who have been on the national scene longer, have more TV exposure and are apparently better organized? Two factors explain Perry's current strength, and the likelihood that he will remain a major player, if not win the nomination early: his positions and his opponents.

Perry has a strong conservative message. Appealing almost exclusively to the base is a tried-and-true Republican Party primary strategy. Richard Nixon famously said a candidate should run as far right as possible during the primaries and then rush back to the center for the general election. Only in Perry's case, it looks like he's not going anywhere. If I were handicapping the platforms, I'd say Perry's positions and speeches, if he gets the nomination, will barely move toward the center. I suspect the Republican base believes that as well, and that's a powerful part of his appeal.

Perry also has a very strong anti-Obama message: "I have executive experience coming in, which Obama didn't, and I can create jobs, which Obama hasn't." (How relevant the one and factual the other may not matter for the primaries.)

He also benefits from tacit tea party support. It's generally acknowledged, rightfully, that the tea party caucus controls the Republican Party. Michele Bachmann is its sentimental favorite. (Sarah Palin might have been her rival, but as of now she's not running.) But there are enough realists in the tea party camp to ask the fundamental question: Can she win the general election?

So many are saying "no" that a candidate vacuum has been created. If not Bachmann, then who? Who has the consistent ultra-conservative credentials and national appeal?

Rick Perry.

His appearance has done much to expose Mitt Romney's inherent weakness as a candidate. It's a study in contrasts. In a sense, Perry is the anti-Romney almost as much as he is the anti-Obama.

Of course, this doesn't mean Perry's already got the nomination locked. For one thing, the GOP establishment is uncomfortable with him. Some members of Team Bush, as has been well-documented, detest him. So the GOP may see yet another late entry.

Still, one thing remains clear: To survive the winter, Romney must attack Perry.

Although this is currently a typical training-camp fight for a roster spot, it does provide President Obama with a chance to observe and plan.

Realistically, as one of my colleagues stated, the president's window to pull himself and his team together is between now and December, for if the GOP race collapses and Perry gets anointed early, the general election might start as soon as early spring -- maybe in time for the Super Bowl. Geaux Saints!

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, and a contributing columnist to Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.