By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's strategy for dealing with rival contender Rick Perry is: do more of the same and bank on a misstep by the Texas governor.
Perry's splashy entry into the 2012 Republican presidential race has yielded double-digit leads over business favorite Mitt Romney in opinion polls, and has taken the wind out of Bachmann's sails as they compete for the same pool of conservative voters.
Perry replaced Bachmann as the freshest face in the nomination race, after she became a media star for her strong performance in a June debate and her fiery attacks on President Barack Obama.
But for now, the Minnesota congresswoman is making no radical strategic changes to catch up with the high-flying Perry.
"We will execute our game plan and worry about the ultimate polls, winning the caucuses and primaries," said Alice Stewart, Bachmann's spokeswoman. "The first measurement that mattered was winning the Iowa straw poll, which we did. The next one will be the Iowa caucus."
While the more moderate Romney appeals to the Republicans' business wing with a message that he -- unlike Perry -- has real-world financial experience, Perry taps into Bachmann's core support.
Both are favorites of the Tea Party movement and of religious social conservatives who are showing they will play a major role in deciding which Republican becomes the nominee to oppose Obama's re-election bid next year.
But Perry brings a major advantage into the fight, given national concern over high unemployment, as a three-term governor of a large state with a stronger-than-average record for creating jobs.
"The momentum has shifted from Bachmann to Perry," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's hard to think of a better first week for someone introducing themselves into the race," he said.
Perry even stole Bachmann's thunder by announcing he was a candidate on the day of the Iowa Straw poll, which Bachmann narrowly won over Representative Ron Paul of Texas.
Bachmann has avoided directly criticizing or challenging Perry, choosing instead to keep her focus on early voting states, particularly Iowa and South Carolina, and depicting herself as the most solid social conservative in the race.
For example, Perry spoke out strongly against the Federal Reserve's monetary policy just after entering the race -- and raised eyebrows with remarks threatening Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. The next day, Bachmann reminded voters in South Carolina that she has been demanding changes at the Fed since she was came to Congress five years ago.
"It was more a kind of sharpening her position and trying to differentiate herself, and an effort to keep herself on the edge of the news story," said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota.
WELL PLACED IF PERRY FALTERS
Republican strategists said Bachmann's approach made sense. If she can do well in Iowa and South Carolina, which make their choice for the Republican nomination early in 2012, she would emerge as a major player in the race even if she is not making a splash in national polls.
Given her loyal base of support and disciplined campaign message, she also would be well placed to win back conservative voters -- who are unhappy with some of Romney's past moderate social and policy positions -- if Perry makes a serious blunder, which critics say he is prone to do.
"It would be a mistake not to take Michele seriously," said Republican strategist Charlie Black, a senior advisor to Senator John McCain when he ran for president in 2008.
"She's got a lot of talent, charisma, smarts, obviously speaks with conviction that comes across to people and she's accomplished a lot there in Iowa already. She's got a big following in South Carolina and some of the other (early-voting) states," he said.
Republican activists noted Bachmann's strong organization in Iowa and said they expected she would keep the core supporters who have fueled her campaign so far.
"It's an Iowa trait: We don't trade horses," said Chuck Laudner, a Rockford, Iowa, Republican activist.
But Gerri McDaniel, a founder of the Myrtle Beach Tea Party in South Carolina, said Perry's record of creating jobs in Texas was an undeniable asset, and added that he would have an extra boost in that state as a fellow southerner.
"He sounds like he's from South Carolina," she said. "We're fighters and Texans are fighters. There's an energy that came with him. The man couldn't sit still (at a recent convention). There's a fighter in the race."
(Additional reporting by Todd Melby in Minneapolis; editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)