I don’t think Rick Perry lost the debate tonight, though he took obvious hits that might do him some harm on immigration and his handling of the Gardasil vaccine in Texas. He got off a bunch of good quick lines and jabs in the first half hour, though as was true in the last debate, he seemed to flag after the one-hour point and could barely compose a sentence without looking as though he might pass out from exhaustion. When pummeled by Michele Bachmann on Gardasil and the fact that he took a campaign contribution from Merck, he professed he was “offended” at the suggestion he would sell out for a $5,000 donation—apparently not understanding the implication that there was a price at which he might well sell out.
The main problem here, though, is that he seems to think he can wing these debates by referring to what he did in Texas here and what he did in Texas there. That is insufficient not just when it comes to giving voters a chance to judge him by the policy choices he might make; it’s insufficient because it suggests he thinks he can get away without getting specific and demonstrating a command of national and international issues.
If he comforts himself with the thought that GOP voters are so simple-minded or singularly focused on government spending they won’t care about his inability to speak with minimal coherence about the American mission in Afghanistan, for example—his worst answer—he misunderstands his own party, which is closer to the vigorous internationalism expressed by Rick Santorum last night than it is to the anti-Israel bilge spouted by Ron Paul.
Perry’s key challenge as he goes forward over the next six months is not appearing to be an empty suit. In the last hour of tonight’s debate, he seemed to shrink inside his finely tailored one. The suit wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t hanging comfortably on him, and he’d better fill it better. There are a lot more of these debates to go—at least seven, if memory serves. And a lot more press coverage. And a lot more controversy. And he’s not ready for it yet.