Rick Perry entered tonight’s Republican presidential debate with an opportunity to reverse the image of him as a poor speaker that had slowed the momentum of his campaign. Instead, he reinforced it. Perry may have started out strong, but once again, his energy and focus seemed to leave him in the second hour of the debate. He clearly flubbed a chance to nail Romney on health care as well as his other changes of position.

Even worse for Perry, immigration emerged as an issue in which the Texas governor has taken a position that, however justified, allows his main rival Mitt Romney to outflank him on the right. That’s a potentially crippling blow to Perry, because it could serve to distract conservatives from Romney’s sponsorship of the law that inspired Obamacare and the other flip-flops that have defined his political career.

Once again, Romney showed himself to be a superior debater. Though he didn’t win every exchange with Perry, especially at the start of the debate, by the end of the evening, there was no question the Texan was faltering. And he tacked hard to the right on immigration by bashing Perry’s support for education for illegals. That’s a cynical and self-defeating position for anybody who cares about the future of the GOP, but it is exactly what conservatives want to hear.

While Perry has done well on the stump, he just can’t seem to keep it together at these debates. Coming off his poor performances in the previous two debates, you have to wonder why his preparation was so poor for the third. That either speaks to his shortcomings or an arrogant refusal to understand mistakes have to be corrected.

Since we know reaction to the past two debates first slowed Perry’s momentum and then trimmed what had become an impressive lead, we can only expect his even worse performance in Orlando will further diminish his standing. Perry needs to understand these debates are killing his candidacy. While he may think the fact the next debate won’t be until Oct. 11 is good news for him, that also means he must wait three weeks for another chance to do better.

Romney still has no good answer for his health care positions and will have a hard time winning the support of Tea Partiers and other conservatives. Nor is it clear whether tacking to the center on Social Security and entitlements while tacking to the right on immigration is something he can continue to do. But there’s no question Perry’s juggernaut has been halted and perhaps derailed. Romney may be closing the once large gap between his poll numbers and those of the Texas governor.

This doesn’t mean Perry is finished. He has too much support in the GOP core and the ability to appeal strongly to conservatives in a way Romney simply can’t. But if Perry doesn’t get his act together soon, his candidacy is going to crash and burn.

Other than a few good one-liners (largely from the second-tier candidates) the debates are not riveting television. But they are having a decisive impact on the course of the Republican race. Unless Perry finds a new debate coach or can sneak some caffeine onto the podium, he may be the first frontrunner to have his candidacy derailed largely by an inability to debate.

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