I hope Governor Rick Perry enjoyed his six-week run as the front runner of the GOP field, because it’s now over.
Perry has had three debates. His first was mediocre. His second debate performance was weaker than his first, and last night’s debate was worse than either of the first two. Whatever strengths the Texas governor has, debating is not one of them, for the reasons covered by my colleagues. He comes across as unprepared, sometimes, unsteady, and at times his answers border on being incoherent. And his stand on illegal immigration will hurt him with the GOP base much more than calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” The cumulative effect of these three debates on the Perry candidacy will be, I think, deeply damaging, in part because his support upon entering the race was shallow. A lot of conservatives rallied to Governor Perry based on what they assumed he was, having seen him hardly at all.
It turns out Rick Perry not only isn’t Ronald Reagan; he might not even be Phil Crane. Now to be fair to Governor Perry, it’s very hard to run a strong campaign the first time out, especially when you’re a late entry, as Perry was. Ronald Reagan, one of the most skilled politicians of the 20th century, won the GOP nomination – but only on his third try. It’s much harder to successfully run for president than most people imagine – and it helps a lot to have run before. Which brings us to Governor Mitt Romney.
He continues his string of very impressive debates. I will repeat what I’ve said before: his improvement as a candidate from 2008 to now is striking. He’s well-prepared, confident, and reassuring. He doesn’t make many unforced errors. And with each outing he’s winning new converts. If the election were held today, Romney would defeat President Obama, probably in something close to a landslide. And that matters a great deal to Republican primary voters.
The other candidates, especially Senator Rick Santorum, were also quite good. He may surprise people in Iowa, where his appeal to social conservatives is strong. My hunch is that Santorum’s fortunes will rise as Michele Bachmann’s continue to fall.
It’s trite to say there are a lot of twists and turns between now and when the first votes are cast next year. And it’s certainly true that national polls aren’t terribly meaningful at this stage. But political skills are. And right now, Mitt Romney is running rings around Rick Perry. That’s becoming increasingly, and almost undeniable, clear to more and more GOP voters.