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Rick Perry struggles to stay on target at GOP debate

September 23, 2011|By James Oliphant
(Phelen M. Ebenhack/REUTERS/pool )

If Rick Perry were a football team, commentators in the booth would lament his failure to make second-half adjustments.

For the second straight Republican debate, the Texas governor seemed to fade as he neared the end of the contest, with a noticeable drop in energy.

The most telling moment Thursday evening was a botched attack on top rival Mitt Romney for Romney’s move during his political career toward more conservative stances in a number of issues, an attack that obviously had been readied in advance.

But Perry blew the delivery, offering instead a muddled stew of lines about Romney’s positions on abortion and healthcare, leaving the audience at the Fox News/Google debate in Orlando, Fla., and the audience at home unsure where Romney stood now or Romney stood then. (Of course, Romney’s critics would maintain that has always been the case.) It allowed Romney to close his portion of the debate decisively, while making a case that Perry didn’t seem to have a grasp of the issues.

Perry also failed to take a clear shot at Romney over his Massachusetts healthcare plan—his greatest political liability. The result was that for yet another GOP debate, Romney would escape heavy fire on the issue.

There were other problems. The governor, who needs to be able to demonstrate that he is up to speed on national security issues, gave a response to a question about the Taliban seizing control of a nuclear weapon that sounded off point and wandering. That allowed former Sen. Rick Santorum, who is trying to elbow himself into the race by courting conservatives who aren’t happy with Perry, an opening to demonstrate his expertise on Middle East.

Perry arguably let Santorum push him around on border issues, as well, where Perry’s expertise should be unchallenged. Instead, Santorum hammered Perry on providing college tuition aid to the children of illegal immigrants and mocked him on border security. In another answer, Perry misspoke, saying Medicaid when he meant Medicare.

The Texas governor did have his moments. He offered a spirited, passionate defense of the Texas tuition policy, one that certainly did not endear him to the crowd (How often does a so-called frontrunner get booed as Perry was?) but may have been more appealing to those watching at home and Latino voters nationwide.

He was more ready this time around to fight off Rep. Michele Bachmann’s attacks over the cervical cancer vaccination program he tried to mandate as governor, tying his support for the plan to an anecdote about meeting a 31-year-old woman ridden with cancer. (After the debate, Bachmann pointed out that Perry had actually met the woman to whom he was referring after the program had been initiated.)

But few could argue it was a good night for the man who just a few weeks ago seemed to have the wind at his back. And it marked the second debate in a row where his performance was found wanting.

Perry’s disinterest in debating has been well chronicled—and it’s possible that it’s just not the right kind of forum for his laid-back personality. He didn't have the same easy command of the facts or of policy that Romney, or Jon Huntsman or Newt Gingrich, demonstrated with ease.

He instead seemed at one point to regard the whole affair as a sort of a joke, signaling to Romney that he saw it all as a form of badminton.

But his supporters and his critics are watching with worry and interest. Perry's performance, combined with an undeniable vulnerability on immigration, has him looking more vulnerable.. That could  give new life to players such as Santorum or Huntsman.  Or it could convince a Sarah Palin or a Chris Christie that there is, indeed, room in the field for yet one more entrant.

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