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Perry vs. Romney: Does it matter whom Obama faces in 2012? In short, yes.

Even with high unemployment and a sluggish economy, it still matters whom the Republican Party nominates to face Obama. For now, Romney appears likely to be a tougher foe than Perry.

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Republican presidential candidates former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (l.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry gesture during a Republican debate Monday, Sept. 12, in Tampa, Fla.

Mike Carlson/AP

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Suppose for the moment that the 2012 election is just a few months away, and President Obama still has a fighting chance at reelection.

Unemployment is creeping downward, though still not far from 9 percent. The economy is still growing, barely. And Mr. Obama has managed to nudge his job approval ratings up near 47 percent.

Will it matter whom the Republican Party nominates? In a word, yes.

“Who the nominee is will be very, very important,” says Karlyn Bowman, an expert on polling at the American Enterprise Institute.

Democrats keep insisting that the presidential race will be a choice, not just a referendum on the incumbent. And the Republican nominee, no matter who it is, will not be without flaws. As Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) put it at a Monitor-hosted breakfast Thursday, Obama is “not running against the Almighty, he’s running against the alternative.”

Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, frames Obama’s prospects this way: “He’s eminently beatable, and Republicans smell this. But in electoral politics, it’s always compared to whom.”

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