This was only Perry’s third debate, but how much longer until his “inexperience” no longer cuts it as an excuse? The issue isn’t just that his performance was weak last night; it’s that he hasn’t shown improvement since his first time on stage. The Reagan debate should have been a massive wakeup call that he needed to buckle down. And after CNN/Tea Party Express, he should have dropped everything and made debate prep his #1 priority.
Either he hasn’t, which would indicate that he has some major issues with prioritizing or self-reflection. Or he has devoted the necessary time to improving, but just doesn’t have it in him. If the latter is true, it doesn’t mean he can’t still win the nomination. Being a poor debater isn’t necessarily politically lethal, as President George W. Bush proved. But if the former is true, it speaks to a deeper character flaw that isn’t surmountable.
Either way, it has to be distressing for his campaign and his supporters. Perry came into the race with a strong lead on Romney and a ton of momentum. Republicans want to like him. But he’s not making it easy for them.
That’s not to say Perry bombed the entire night. His best line was his touching Gardasil story about a young cancer victim who lobbied him on the vaccine. He also improved his response on Social Security, and gave a compelling argument on allowing illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state costs. The worst part of the night for him was when he fumbled through an attack on Romney as a “flip-flopper.” It was the same attack Romney made against Perry earlier in the night – only Romney had done it better. Perry’s listlessness was also apparent. As the debate wore on, he seemed to grow tired and lose focus. He looked like he would have rather been anywhere but there. It was a sharp contrast with Romney, who was quick on his feet, witty and relaxed.
Perry may still be leading in the polls, but Romney came out of the debate looking like the frontrunner. And unless Perry is able to find his stride, Romney will soon start closing the gap in the polls as well.