It came a week later than expected and didn’t produce all the results he wanted, but Rick Perry’s wake-up call at last night’s Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas showed there were some signs of life in a candidate who appeared to be dead in the water. Perry, who seemed half-asleep at previous debates, was a different man in Vegas. He came out firing on all cylinders determined to show from the first moment that he was the “authentic conservative” in the race and not one of “convenience,” which is to say, Mitt Romney. In the next two hours, he snarled, interrupted, brawled and even tried to smear Romney. But he also reverted to form every now and then with confused and garbled comments that left observers scratching their heads.
Though Perry has to be feeling a bit better about himself the morning after the debate, it’s far from clear all of his huffing and puffing has changed the dynamic of the race. The real question is not whether he has damaged Romney but if his more spirited performance will enable him to seize back the title of the leading conservative in the race from Herman Cain.
Going into the Las Vegas tangle, Cain had leaped over Perry in the polls and seemed poised to be the second man in what might have turned into a two-man race with Romney. Perry’s mission was to stop his free fall and get back into contention. Yet other than joining in the gang tackle in which the entire field jumped on Cain’s 9-9-9-tax plan, Perry ignored Cain and zeroed in on Romney.
Having allowed himself to be outflanked on the right on immigration in previous debates, Perry went for the jugular in an attempt to turn the tables on Romney, resurrecting an old charge that a lawn care company that worked on the former Massachusetts governor’s home employed illegal immigrants. But Perry overreached and said Romney had personally hired illegals, something that was untrue, and he wouldn’t back down on the attack even when Romney explained the truth. It was a nasty moment that didn’t help either candidate, especially Perry, who illustrated the perils of trying to overcompensate for appearing passive in past debates. Perry’s constant interruptions angered Romney and, for once, made him look as if he was losing his cool. But it also made Perry appear pointlessly belligerent rather than in charge.
Perry showed signs of his old confusion and inability to articulate points even when it appeared he knew what he wanted to say. Perry’s response to questions about a supporter’s attack on Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith was convoluted and did little to undo the damage that kerfuffle caused. Later, while attempting to make a cogent point about defunding the United Nations in the aftermath of the Palestinian Authority’s end run around the peace process, Perry again ran out of words. He knew what he wanted to say but just couldn’t manage to put together a coherent sentence.
For all of the flaws in his performance, had Perry done as well in earlier debates as he did last night, he might still be in the lead. This may be the start of a comeback, but it will take more than a middling though animated showing to undo all the damage done by his sleepwalking act in the previous four debates.
In Perry’s favor are three factors that should not be discounted.
The first is the fact that though Romney remains the frontrunner and the likely nominee, he still hasn’t sold most conservatives. Until the last conservative concedes, there will always be plenty of room to Romney’s right for a candidate who can better appeal to Tea Partiers and social conservatives.
The second factor is the weakness of the other conservatives in the race. Cain may be affable and unflappable, but the way the other candidates vivisected his tax plan at the start of the debate last night showed he is not ready for prime time. Cain is a crowd-pleaser, but only his most devoted fans can imagine him as president.
Third is the fact that Perry has enough money and the ability to raise more from the oil industry to keep fighting no matter what the polls say. Considering that Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich may all run out of cash before the first votes are counted, Perry’s campaign finance advantage should not be discounted.
But though Perry may have snarled his way back into the conversation, his inability to articulate his positions in a consistent and capable manner is still a crippling fault. Perry’s wake-up call came too late to correct the impression most Americans now have of him as a belligerent bumbler who will never be president.