This was not a good debate for Rick Perry. But, it also wasn’t a slam-dunk win for Mitt Romney either.
The two front-runners have been on the same debate stage three times now. And, here’s what we’ve learned.
Mitt Romney is very good at debating. He’s comfortable. He’s pithy. He’s confident.
Rick Perry is not a good debater.
Or maybe he’s just not practiced enough (remember, before these three debates, he’d only participated in five debates in Texas). Whatever it is, he has yet to find his footing. Even after three debates, Perry has yet to find a coherent response to the attacks he knows are coming: most obviously his past statements on Social Security. And, he stumbled badly on a question he wasn’t expecting – but probably should have. What to do when that 3 a.m. call comes with an international crisis.
At the spin room after the debate, Romney campaign strategist Eric Fehrnstom called the Texas Governor’s response to a question about what to do if he was told that Pakistan had lost control of its nuclear weapons at the hands of the Taliban, “completely unintelligible.” Perry’s answer to the question started with “obviously before you get to that point you have to build a relationship in that area” — a big no-no for someone looking to be Commander-in-Chief — and ended with talk about selling India “upgraded F16s.”
He even whiffed on what should have been a home run- calling out Romney as a flip-flopper. He rambled and stumbled and ultimately lost any chance he had to get in a clean swipe. As with his previous debates, Perry seems to run out of steam about 45 minutes into the night.
Even so, the Perry team can console themselves with this: there’s no correlation between being a strong debater and winning the nomination. That and the fact that very few voters are actually tuning into these early back and forth between these candidates.
Moreover, Romney looked stronger because Perry tripped over his own feet, not because Romney pushed him.
This goes back to Romney’s fundamental problem: can he only win if Perry loses it?
Perry does have to worry about is that as a relatively unknown candidate these debates are going to start to define him in the exact opposite way than he is trying to portray himself.
In real life, Perry projects a swagger and a confidence. On stage, he looks unsure and small.
These debates take on a huge level of importance now, in part because there’s nothing else really going on. As the year goes forward, outside groups are going to start spending money on ads, candidates will be sending out mailers, and world events will affect the debate in ways that we can’t predict.