Analysis: Rick Perry Takes Off the Gloves at Las Vegas Debate, But Doesn’t Land a Knockout Punch

Analysis from ABC News’ Amy Walter:

For the first time since he got into the Presidential race just over two months ago, Rick Perry finally looked comfortable on the debate stage.

Gone was the laconic and vaguely dazed Texas Governor. In his place was a feisty candidate eager to engage frontrunner Mitt Romney. But, even as he took the gloves off, Perry didn’t land any knock-out punches – or even leave a bruise.

Meanwhile, it was Herman Cain who struggled throughout the night. Cain, who normally shows up with a spring in his step and a quick quip at the ready, looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s learning, as Romney knows all too well, that it’s not so fun coming into a debate with a bulls-eye on your back. The relentless assault on his 9-9-9 plan by his opponents and the media has clearly taken its toll.

The always-steady Romney did get a bit flustered at points by Perry’s more aggressive style – even reaching out to touch Perry at one point in an attempt to get him to let him answer a question. A number of times, Romney chastised his opponents for not following the “rules” of the debate. That may work well in high school forensics, but in real life no one likes the kid who comes across as the know-it-all. Remember, Romney’s biggest hurdle is not to convince voters he’s the smartest guy in the room, it’s to convince them that he’s real.

Even so, Romney proved once again that he’s the strongest debater in the bunch. Like a jujitsu master, Romney found a way to turn almost every attack into a counter-punch. He even found a way to undercut Perry on his greatest asset – his record of job growth in the state – saying that “almost half the jobs created in Texas were taken by illegal immigrants.”

Which brings us to the bigger issue for Perry – his inability to get on the economic/jobs message that his campaign was supposed to be all about. When he got into this race he was the “jobs” governor, creator of the “Texas Miracle.”  Tonight, it wasn’t until one hour and 47 minutes into the debate that Perry finally mentioned that record: ” If you want to know how someone’s going to act in the future, look how they act in the past. I mean, so, Mitt, while you were the governor of Massachusetts in that period of time, you were 47th in the nation in job creation. During that same period of time, we created 20 times more jobs. As a matter of fact, you’d created 40,000 jobs total in your four years. Last two months, we created more jobs than that in Texas.”

That was it. He spent the next few minutes fending off Romney’s attacks on that record. In the end, Perry proved that he can compete on a debate stage, but he hasn’t proven his ability to dominate it. For wary Perry donors and supporters, however, his performance tonight should make their job at selling the Texas Governor a bit easier.